An illusory Questing Beast

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Lev Grossman Codex Arrow 2005

In that this is a tale of a modern quest for a medieval book that purports to be about the Quest for the Holy Grail, Codex is undoubtedly an Arthurian novel. We are treated to circumstantial details about a medieval codex, A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians by Gervase of Langford, and much about encoded messages, bookbinding and medieval manuscripts. This reveals the author’s intention to impress us with the depth of his research, and I have to say that some of the detail is fascinating, and as an Arthurian I thought the conceit of a hitherto unknown manuscript about the Matter of Britain promising.

Less promising are the details of a virtual reality game that the hero simultaneously gets drawn into, which are meant to impress us with the breadth of Grossman’s online experience; the novel is set in the middle of the noughties and so it becomes less hard as time goes on to say how that this may not stand up as a plot device while real-life technology overtakes his scenario.

Sadly, in common with many such thrillers – the paperback cover of this edition is a homage to, or perhaps rip-off of, the original The Da Vinci Code jacket with its medieval archways – there is little about the characters to empathise with or care about: they are enigmatic stereotypes, and it’s hard to feel a connection with cardboard cut-outs, particularly the vacillating and inconsistent protagonist. The final nail in the coffin, for me, is the totally surreal view of modern England that is conjured up in the closing pages as the North American hero, the archetypical innocent abraod, chases after his chimaera on the other side of the Atlantic. And of course we know that this type of Questing Beast ultimately proves illusory.

Still, as a thriller it does its job, pulling the reader along at breakneck speed with reflective edisodes interspersed, and is intriguing enough to keep you mostly enthralled almost through to the end. There is affection enough in the asides about medieval literature and the physicality of ancient tomes; a pity then that there is an unreality about the concluding events.

Review first published March 2013

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