Fiction / My Bookshelf

Book Review ~ Enjoying History as a Mystery

Originally published July 14, 2012

Book Review: The Charlemagne Pursuit by Steve Berry. Paperback readily available for around $10.00.

Admittedly I love a good intrigue novel.  Sometimes I catch myself reading faster in hopes of letting the hero (or heroine) know about some lurking danger so, perhaps, I don’t always trust the author to protect him or her. I was introduced to Steve Berry by a used bookstore owner familiar with my tastes in history and intrigue.  I am grateful for his astute assessment of his clientele.

Steve Berry is the type of author that researches little known or unexplained aspects of history and builds a story around that piece that involves modern day villains and heroes chasing each other from continent to continent in a quest to find, or protect, the answer to some historical puzzle. Some of the reviews I read before preparing mine indicated that there were far too many threads wrapped into this story line. In part I might agree, and, as it happens, I don’t agree with his final conclusions on either the civilization his main character discovers or on the source of the primary key; the Voynich Manuscript. That issue aside, the book brings the non-historian into a world of tangled clues that academics in the humanities deal with on a daily basis: who knew what when and why did they pursue certain lines of investigation? Berry’s version is, of course, far more exciting and dangerous than most researchers’ experience. Mr. Berry always adds an “Author’s Note” to let you know what is “real” and what is part of his story. Nice source of research for an historical addict such as myself.

I won’t go into plot details here; that is for the reader to discover. The basic story line involves research into the life of Charlemagne through the writings of his traveling companion, Einhard. In his journal, The Life of Charlemagne, Einhard describes events and, perhaps, thoughts of Charlemagne, that are not all that clear. This provides plenty of source material for the historical mystery. Berry ties a document known as the Voynich Manuscript to Charlemagne. The copy that is now extant is dated to the early 15th century and has a rather interesting provenance. It is considered “the world’s most mysterious manuscript” and has defied translation by persons and organizations known for they ability to crack ciphers and ancient languages. The manner in which Charlemagne acquires something like the manuscript is an interesting (and to me) plausible scenario. It’s the interpretation of that event and the source of the manuscript on which Mr. Berry and I diverge.

I had run across the manuscript before. Berry’s version of its history sent me back to the Internet for more information and I found a complete digital file of the actual manuscript. Someday I will, hopefully, find a linguist to collaborate with me and, perhaps, my own version will get introduced to the world. Let it suffice to say that finding fiction writers who really do their research and present us with a world of possibilities we had not at first considered is not that common.  Mr. Berry and his wife support the investigation of the lesser known aspects of our history on their website

Update from the future (7/2020):

There have been two published suggestions that the matter of the manuscript is resolved. I would think, however, that until we have a complete and supportable translation we are all merely speculating. Check out the following for more information.

SciNews 5/15/2019 “Has Voynich Manuscript Been Decoded?”

The Art Newspaper: “Has Yale’s mysterious Voynich Manuscript finally been deciphered?

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