“Cryptography involves one genius trying to work out what another genius has done—it results in the most appalling carnage,” observes one Decoded character. In this debut novel from Mai Jia, eccentric math prodigy Rong Jinzhen is plucked from his studies at N University and recruited to China’s top-secret Unit 701. There he’s tasked with deciphering PURPLE, a fiendishly difficult code used by China’s enemies. In doing so, he’s involved in an intellectual race against a shadowy opponent who’s bent on deciphering PURPLE before he does. His rival turns out to be his trusted former university mentor—or so it seems.

Despite a plot based on high-stakes political intrigue, Decoded is hardly a straightforward thriller. Instead, it begins as a family saga, narrating the lives of such figures as Jinzhen’s grandmother, a pioneering mathematics professor. Events are told out of order, through a combination of narration and after-the-fact interviews with key characters. The reader must wait to the end to find out who is telling this story, and why. And the tale builds to a final crisis that reveals the fragile nature of genius.

Along the way, it offers a fascinating window into 20th-century Chinese history, including World War II and Mao’s Cultural Revolution (one character is subjected to public humiliation as a supposed traitor to the Party). And it sheds light on a mysterious profession, one that conceals sense within nonsense, “as if a sane person had borrowed the words of a madman to speak.” Evocative metaphors convey the seductiveness of Jinzhen’s calling to even the math-averse. While some of the novel’s factual questions are ultimately answered, its psychological portrait of a brilliant man suggests that the human mind is the deepest enigma of all.

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