An exhausting banquet of a book, following an improbable adventurer on an unlikely quest during the turbulent 16th century. Norfolk has a talent for catching the strangeness and vigor of other times. His debut, Lempriâ‰¤re's Dictionary (1992), was set in the 18th century, and involved a wonderfully large and gaudy cast of wanderers and decadent aristocrats, assassins, and mystics. His second novel is, if anything, even more audacious. Inspired by a true incident, it follows the remarkable experiences of an expedition sent to Africa in 1515 to capture a rhinoceros and transport it to Rome. The expedition was mounted by the Portuguese, struggling to hold on to their far-flung trading empire. The idea was that, by giving the rhinoceros--the most outlandish of creatures, the most unexpected of gifts--to the jaded Pope, he might be sufficiently bemused to side with the Portuguese in their desperate contest with Spain. Norfolk has built an exotic, grim narrative around this obscure (and futile) effort. At the heart of the action is Silvestro, a mercenary, a mystic, and a man with an astonishing talent for surviving, recruited for the expedition because he's an outsider and expendable. While the long voyage out and back is the story's centerpoint, it's only one part of Norfolk's considerable canvas, which also includes a peculiar, isolated order of monks, the plots and counterplots of two intemperate empires, and a wonderful portrait of a decrepit but nonetheless vivid Rome, filled with pilgrims, merchants, various ruthless groups contending for power within the Church, resourceful prostitutes, and equally inventive thieves. The great scale of the book eventually becomes daunting: One adventure spirals into another, escapes follow betrayals, revelation piles on revelation. But if the increasingly dark narrative seems finally too overstuffed with incident and too long, this is nonetheless one of the most original, energetic, and ambitious novels of recent years. It marks the emergence of a major writer.