By M. Davies
Like many, I reserved my copy of Dan Brown’s long awaited sequel to The Da Vinci Code back in March. Yesterday the book fell through my letterbox and I pounced on it and proceeded, I plead guilty, to race my way through it in under 24 hours. The book is fantastic, the plot is well developed in the main and Robert Langdon continues to exude his appeal as the bookish Professor of symbols. My criticism however, lies in the plot and Langdon’s interaction with other characters.
The plot is markedly similar in feeling to the Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons – I felt that in the demand for a new book, Brown has merely recycled some parts of his previous book and included them in this one. Don’t get me wrong, the recycled goods are sparkly and new, but readers who know The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons well will be aware that they’ll have the occasional flashback to the older book whilst reading the new one. Brown knows his symbols and uses them to great effect in this novel, but there’s just something that doesn’t entirely fit. By the end of the book, Washington D.C feels almost like the Vatican. The basic premise, as it was in The Da Vinci Code, was that all is not as it seems. Newton and his band of brothers created symbols implanted everywhere and those with the relevant skill set can treat them and explore the knowledge within. A great plot that leaves the reader exhilarated throughout the book, the first time they read it.
The beauty of The Da Vinci Code was that it was really very plausible. Millions of us flocked to the internet to look up everything in it that caught our interest. The thrill was amplified by the fact that a lot turned out to be true, if Google is accurate. However, the fact that the same situation is true in The Lost Symbol left me feeling as though the situation should have been changed, the book written differently – a case of been there and done that. The book reads, in large sections, like a tourist map of Washington, with Langdon and his friends as the guides. Langdon, with one encouraging word from another character, launches into huge drawn out explanations of know-it-all fact, leading the reader to feel as though they are in the Lecture Theatre being taught. This feeling was minimised in The Da Vinci Code, to the extent that one can read it over and over without feeling as though they’re learning. The same cannot be said of The Lost Symbol – it’s a very large lecture, an enjoyable one though.
The refreshing mix of fact and fiction left me feeling refreshed and exhilarated for The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, but in The Lost Symbol, I feel that the amount of fact in the novel, and therefore the amount of Langdon’s explanations, was too much, and so it blurred the lines between fact and fiction and almost became a sequence of facts, linked together by Langdon’s narrative and the situations created in the plot. One wonders if Dan Brown is a fiction writer or someone who has an excellent researcher whom he has relied upon a little heavily in writing this book. Obviously, following the sheer success of the previous book, there must have been a large amount of pressure to make it bigger, better, more complex. He’s done this, but sadly, the narrative is strained by all the factual explanations to the point where the reader is aware they’re being lectured.
The other criticism I had of the book is Langdon’s character, particularly his character’s involvement in the plot. I get the feeling that our dear Professor Langdon may fall prey to what I call the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome. Where a character is serialised, it can get to the point where the reader sees the writer struggling to come up with innovative situations to place their character in and so the plots get more and more outlandish until CIA Directors are taking a Symbols expert and sending him into buildings with CIA Agents, whilst naming him “one of the team”. The other worrying claim was that Langdon was the “only person in the world” with the expertise to solve the puzzle – what happens if he dies…will the age old Masonic groups crumble, will government cease to work? In Dan Brown’s world, it seems they would, which is troublesome. In previous novels, what made Langdon so good was that he felt as though he was out of his depth, relying on his instincts and education. In this book, he’s a lot more of a celebrity, complete with being recognised. Much like the famous J.B. Fletcher. The same happened in Murder, She Wrote…wherever Jessica went, murder followed in increasingly bizarre ways. Given Brown’s recent statement that he has around 23 more ideas for books involving Langdon, it seem’s we may be subjected to the diluting of a great character over the next couple of decades. The great test of a writer, I believe, is that he or she knows when to stop writing a character; knows when all they set out to do has been accomplished and that playing with the character further would result in the degradation of it. I fear that Dan Brown will fall into this trap with Langdon.
Aside from those two issues, I really enjoyed this book. It was fast paced with a great plot, although sometimes overly complex, and a good twist near the end. I read it non-stop and loved each moment of it, despite my misgivings. I would read it again, but ultimately felt that it was a bit forced. When reading The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, it felt natural and that they had been written with absolute devotion. With The Lost Symbol, I felt that it was more of an “I have to write another book” situation, rather than a “I’d really enjoy writing another one”. I think long time Dan Brown fans will ultimately prefer the older novels such as Digital Fortress, Deception Point, Angels & Demons, and of course, the tour de force that is The Da Vinci Code.
As a big fan of all his previous books, Lost Symbol was a severe let-down. It lacks the suspense, shock and tightly wound plot of all its predecessors. As many people have noted, there’s far too much turgid filler information that is as unwelcome a disruption as having to answer a phone call during sex. The whole experience felt like a schizophrenic combination of thriller, textbook and the ‘Religious Shouting Man’ at Oxford Circus, with no side fully satisfied.
The visual diagrams were unexciting and mediocre, and nowhere near the ingenious reversible Illuminati symbols featured in Angels and Demons. Characters were completely two-dimensional with clicheed back stories and contrived motivations (although this done in many other books, they were drawn with more sympathy). Not a single character in this book was appealing nor made you feel you’re on their side.
The jokes were repetitive and flat. One quip about ‘not being able to use an iPhone’ would have been mildly funny if seen once but it was repeated throughout the book at least 4-5 times, by which time any vestige of humour had been thoroughly beaten out. There were also copious self-referential allusions (eg the meaning of “Sincerely” from Digital Fortress) which may have been added for entertainment but just serve to make the plot feel poorly-researched and recycled.
On the upside, Lost Symbol did have a few classic Dan Brown moments. Original and bizarre settings, a few plot twists and the inevitable acquisition of obscure general knowledge. However if filmed in live-action this would be the equivalent of a lukewarm X-files episode, and very far shot from a Hollywood blockbuster. This ranks as the most disappointing story in series, and definitely not worth the price to buy it in hardback!
By Pen Name
I’ve read all of Dan Brown’s books, and while I’m not a huge fan, I do enjoy his stories and the fantastical idea that there could be some huge conspiracy or esoterica out there that only a few people know about. Dan Brown’s writing could use some work, and he’s not crafting great literature here, but the content of his stories usually makes up for that, and his latest novel, The Lost Symbol, is no exception. This is the third book to follow Robert Langdon, a Harvard Symbologist who previously showed up in Angels & Demons: A Novel (Robert Langdon), and The Da Vinci Code.
The Lost Symbol is very similar to his previous books, in that it has the same formulaic plot, structure, and theme, only this time it takes place in Washington, D.C. and involves the Freemasons instead of the Knights Templar. Just like in the Da Vinci Code, Langdon is called to Washington at a friend’s request, only to find him missing, and spends the rest of the book chasing clues throughout the city and trying to outwit a new villain who is seemingly as smart as he is.
As mentioned above, the formula in The Lost Symbol is almost exactly the same. After only a few chapters into the book, I started drawing immediate comparisons to National Treasure (Widescreen Edition), and I could see some readers making that claim if it weren’t for a few exceptions: Langdon is more likable than Ben Gates, the mysteries are much more involved and well-researched, and there is noticeably more action and suspense. This time, rather than trying to ignore some rather large plot holes, as contained in the Da Vinci Code, you will have to suspend your disbelief that a Harvard professor is physically capable of so many close calls. It almost reads more like an Ian Fleming novel than a book about a mid-50s professor trying to solve a centuries-old scavenger hunt. That works out well because a lot of books of this genre can get weighed down by the scientific or historical aspects and bore you to death.
That’s not to say that The Lost Symbol doesn’t have it’s faults. The first is most notably the writing. While it has certainly improved since The Da Vinci Code, it still seems rather sophomoric, and not on par with someone who is one of the biggest-selling authors in the last twenty years. Even though it’s fiction, some of the characters’ actions really made me wonder if Brown has had much human contact while writing the book. There are other annoyances that he continually repeats in the book, but I won’t bring them up for fear that mentioning them may cause future readers to have their attention constantly drawn to them. Overall though, the writing is not terrible and the plot is suspenseful enough that I can overlook it. Another theme that Brown plays around with is the concept of “mind over matter.” He provides a great deal of research on the subject (too much in some chapters), but I still found it a little too out there, and wish he had chosen a different angle.
I think this book will appeal not only to Dan Brown fans, but to fans of Douglas Preston and Lee Child (Langdon is almost a clone of the Agent Pendergast character), James Rollins, Michael Crichton (there are certainly a lot of influences here as far as research into a book goes), and with this book, Clive Cussler (the action is on par with anything Dirk Pitt would see).
If I had to rank it, I would put The Lost Symbol below Angels and Demons, and above Da Vinci Code. While I don’t think it’s worth of 5 stars, it was certainly an enjoyable read and enough to satiate me until the next book comes out (provided he doesn’t wait as long as he did for this one).