Recently, a friend gave me a copy of a young adult novel I had never heard of, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman. In it, a high school student named Nora takes a job translating letters for a professor who believes it will unlock the secrets of a mysterious manuscript. Her best friend Chris is also working on the project, and when he is murdered and Nora’s boyfriend Max goes missing, Nora and Chris’s girlfriend Ariadne become determined to find out who is behind it. They embark on a dangerous journey to Prague where they investigate secret societies, dark conspiracies, and rumors of a machine that will talk to God. It’s kind of like The Da Vinci Code, but starring teenagers and, in my opinion, much better written. (The copies available in Minuteman show a very different cover, but it’s the same book, I just strongly prefer my version. Don’t you think it’s a much better cover?)
The manuscript at the center of the novel really exists. It’s called the Voynich Manuscript after a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich, who purchased it back in 1912. These days it resides at Yale University, where they’ve digitized the entire book. You can view it here. It’s written in a language that noone has been able to decipher and contains puzzling illustrations that are part botanical, part fanciful. Many scholars have tried to determine its origins before Voynich’s purchase and decipher the unfamiliar language, but it’s so mysterious and controversial they can’t even agree whether or not it’s a hoax. Some believe the words are just gibberish, while others maintain it’s a language or cipher that meant something to somebody, even if they made it up themselves. Isn’t it fascinating?
The Book of Blood and Shadow isn’t the only novel inspired by this strange puzzle. Also check out The Book of God and Physics by Enrique Jovan, which is available here at the Robbins Library, or In Tongues of the Dead by Brad Kelln, which you can request through Minuteman. Other novels about codes and manuscripts include Codex by Lev Grossman, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, and Enigma by Robert Harris.
If you want to read some non-fiction about the Voynich manuscript, try The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the unsolved mystery of the most unusual manuscript in the world by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. For a general history of cryptography, try The Code Book: the evolution of secrecy from Mary Queen of Scots to quantum cryptography by Simon Singh or Code Breaking: a history and exploration by Rudolf Kippenhahn.
Do you have any favorite novels about secret codes or manuscripts? Tell us in the comments below!