|An American academic and a beautiful young Italian baronessa running around to find a mysterious old book containing the key to great and dangerous knowledge. It sounds like something we've seen before, but Den forbudte bog (The Forbidden Book) has greater literary ambitions, and qualities, than Dan Brown and takes itself and its subject matter a lot more seriously than the Indiana Jones movies.
The novel's Forbidden Book is a secret special edition of a work entitled The Magic World of Heroes which for centuries has been handed down through a Northern Italian aristocratic family, and has now reached Orsina Riviera della Motta (by the way, it's an authentic book, published in 1603 by an author with the same last name as Orsina's).
Orsina asks her former teacher Leo Kavenaugh - an expert in old Italian literature - for help in her attempts to understand the deeper meaning of this strange text which is full of alchemistic codes and allegories and instructions about how to carry out divination and other forms of magic.
Leo is in love with Orsina, and even though she is married to an English businessman, Leo is happy to travel from Georgetown to the Riviera family's villa in Northern Italy to help her with the project. Orsina's uncle resides in the villa. He studies esoteric subjects and practices magic; from time to time he gathers large groups of young disciples for lectures on the magic-aristocratic worldview, Heroic Man, the struggle between civilizations, and other subjects which not only fascinate them, but appear to drive some of them to commit acts of terrorism against churches in various parts of Europe in order to throw the blame on Islamic extremists and thereby further the apocalyptic showdown between Christianity and Islam. The uncle's magic practices also include an incestuous relationship with Orsina's incredibly beautiful younger sister.
In the first half of the book the reader's interest is captivated by the uncle's strange and perverse activities, by Leo's and Orsina's difficult love story and their efforts to make sense of the old book's gibberish, and by the involvement of the very religious Leo in an unholy alliance between American right-wing politicians and circles in the Catholic Church who want to stop the Pope's attempts at making peace between Christians and Muslims by watering down the doctrine of the faith. In the second half the focus of the narrative becomes narrower and sharper, as Orsina is kidnapped and her sister is found dead in the trunk of her husband's Ferrari. Leo runs to the rescue, but becomes a suspect himself and is forced to hide from the police, while he tries to save Orsina. The final part of the novel is an exciting manhunt set in South Tyrol, a Venetian palace, a Northern Italian monastery, the Riviera, and other interesting locations.
The many, long quotations from The Magic World of Heroes can be slightly tiresome, but they do turn out to serve a purpose, as not only the old book, but also the magic to which it is a key, ends up playing a decisive role in the plot. This is an original and surprising solution, carried out with dramatic effect, and even though it goes somewhat against the conventions of the thriller genre, it in fact works very well in this context. The Forbidden Book is witty and full of atmosphere and gives the reader a pleasant feeling of being in the hands of competent people with a thorough knowledge of not only religions, the Church, occult matters and esoteric circles, but also of Italian matters in general. Leo's and Orsina's love is great and romantic, and the excitement lasts until almost the very last page.