This book was inspired by the true story of Don Julius, the illegitimate son of Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf. Don Julius was a mentally ill young man who scandalized the Holy Roman Empire in the early 1600s, when he cold-bloodedly murdered a young girl who worked in a Bohemian bathhouse.
As the book opens an adolescent Don Julius is obsessed with deciphering the secrets of a book called 'The Coded Book of Wonder', an activity which seems to quiet the evil voices in his head. Emperor Rudolf, thinking his son Julius should get out and about, forbids the boy from reading the book. Don Julius then devotes his time to feasting and debauchery and grows up to be a violent, obese young man who copulates in the streets and terrorizes the people of Prague, where he lives.
Fearing backlash from the public the Emperor sends his son to a village called Český Krumlov in Bohemia, where Julius is essentially imprisoned in a castle with guards, a priest, and a doctor. A local barber-surgeon named Pichler is hired to cure the mad royal using the medical treatment of the time, blood-letting and leeches. To assist him, Pilchler brings his daughter Marketa, a pretty young girl who works in the family-run bathhouse but longs to be a doctor. The descriptions of what goes on in the bathhouse are quite graphic. The male customers paw and pinch the bathhouse girls, masturbate, and one particularly gross customer negotiates with Marketa's mother to take Marketa's virginity when she gets a little older.
Deranged Julius, convinced that Marketa is an angel from The Coded Book of Wonder, becomes obsessed with her - and his subsequent behavior has terrible consequences. Though the book is fiction, the historical events depicted are plausible and the arrogance and behavior of the Empire's rulers is shocking. It seems a prince of the realm could rape and pillage as he pleased with the townsfolk having no one to turn to for help. Nevertheless the murder of an innocent girl was apparently a step too far and Emperor Rudolf was forced to act, especially since his brother was already plotting to replace him on the throne.
The story's setting is well-portrayed and the characters are vividly described and believable though I disliked many of them, including Don Julius, his priest, Marketa's mother, and most of the patrons of the bathhouse. The author does a laudable job fictionalizing Don Julius' life but for me the story moves slowly and isn't totally compelling. Fans of historical fiction, though, might like the book better than I did.