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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


Books by Debra Hamel:

THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


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READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
By Debra Hamel


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TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Debra Hamel


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SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
By Debra Hamel


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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
By Debra Hamel


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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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Asensi, Matilde: The Last Cato

  Amazon  

3 stars

Dr. Ottavia Salina, a 40-year-old nun-cum-paleographer working in the Vatican's classified archives, has her mundane but satisfying life upended when she is called upon to decipher a series of tattoos--crosses and Greek letters--found on the body of a dead Ethiopian man. This bizarre assignment, Salina eventually discovers, is somehow connected to a rash of recent thefts, the disappearance of a number of ligna crucis, pieces of the alleged True Cross, from their reliquaries in churches throughout the world. Together with a captain of the Swiss Guard and a bookishly appealing Egyptian archaeologist, Salina undertakes to recover the relics--by undergoing the same initiation ceremony that left the Ethiopian's corpse so scarred. The three follow clues left by Dante in his Divine Comedy, which turns out to be a roadmap of sorts to a secret brotherhood, nearly two millennia old, of staurofilakes, guardians of the True Cross. The leader of the staurofilakes, called "Cato" after the Roman statesman Cato the Younger, gives this book its title.

The Last Cato was originally published in Spanish in 2001, which is to say that it was not rushed to press to ride the wave of interest in religious thrillers sparked by the 2003 publication of The DaVinci Code. But the book is of that ilk, its intellectually astute protagonists uncovering ancient religious secrets while traversing an international stage. Unfortunately, while The Last Cato is well researched and offers a likeable character in the person of Dr. Salina, the book fails to actually thrill. It wears its erudition rather too heavily, with lengthy, unnecessary descriptions slowing down the narrative, from details of dinners consumed to the  names and ranks of people present at meetings to a discussion of the hierarchy of the Greek Orthodox Church. Translations of and commentary on passages from Dante likewise slow the book down. There are other problems as well. While the reader is well prepared for a change in the relationship between Ottavia and her archaeologist friend, for example, Salina's realization of what's happening is far too sudden to be credible. And it is difficult to believe that our heroes are able to pass some of the physical and intellectual tasks that are set them. We are to believe, in particular, that Ottavia--who confesses to never exercising--is able to run for some ten straight hours in order to reenact Pheidippides' famous run from Marathon to Athens. (This test was undertaken by Salina and her cohorts, by the way, without them even considering the possibility that they might be able to complete this phase of the trial by, say, renting a Segway.) It is, for that matter, difficult to believe in the paradisiacal universe of the staurofilakes as it is described in the book's final chapter.

Asensi gets high marks for her research, and Dante aficionados may enjoy the use to which his Divine Comedy is put here. But the book would definitely benefit from some pruning: those parts of The Last Cato that are difficult to credit would be more easily swallowed were the book a faster read.

Comments

1.

I enjoyed your comments about The Last Cato. We recently talked it on our blog, Get Your English On. Check it out: http://book-lovers-get-your-english-on.blogspot.com/2007/12/last-cato-review-by-chris.html.

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