Book Review: ‘The Lost Symbol’ by Dan Brown

September 23, 2009 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

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I just finished reading the most eagerly anticipated, non-Harry Potter book in history, Dan Brown’s latest, The Lost Symbol.  So what did I think of it?  Very interesting, very exciting and very Dan Brown.   But at the end of the day, it was no Da Vinci Code.

That said, it would be pretty unreasonable to expect Brown to write a better follow-up to one of the most read novels of all time (as stated in his bio on the book jacket!).  The pressure he felt must have been mind-boggling, which may explain why the book took so bloody long to finish!

What’s it about?

The Lost Symbol is the third adventure featuring Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (in movie terms that’s Tom Hanks), and takes place over the course of an evening in the US capital of Washington DC.  As correctly predicted, it involves a mysterious figure, lots of problems to solve involving codes and symbols, a fascinating blend of fact and fiction, and of course, a race against time.  Oh, and plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing.

What’s good about it?

One thing you can’t deny about The Lost Symbol is that it’s highly addictive.  Brown knows how to push his readers’ buttons, using a compulsive blend of interesting factoids, short chapters, hooks and multiple interchanging subplots to keep readers flicking the pages.  Just about every chapter ends in a cliffhanger, though the resolution usually doesn’t come until a couple of chapters later (if that).  As a result, you’ll find yourself in a perpetual state of wanting to find out what happens next!  It’s a formula Dan Brown has used in just about all his novels, and he’s clearly getting very good at it.

The Lost Symbol is the type of book you can get, well, lost in.  It’s advisable to read long chunks in one sitting because there are so many layers of mysteries and subplots stacked on top of each other that it’s easy to forget or get confused unless it’s all fresh in your mind.

What’s not so good about it?

The story itself – to be honest, is nothing special.  There is this overarching conspiracy theory regarding Freemasonry and the link between the human mind and the universe (I know, I know), and while it does traverse issues regarding religion, I don’t quite think it has the same ‘pop’ as The Da Vinci Code (or even Angels & Demons) when it comes to causing controversy.  It’s just too easy to laugh off.  That said, I do like the theory that Brown puts forward in the novel. Yes it’s out there and it probably risks incurring the wrath of every religion around the world, but strangely, it kind of rings true.

Notwithstanding all of that, some parts of the novel do feel somewhat contrived.  When Brown wants to make a big deal out of something (or nothing), he really goes all out, regardless of whether it warrants such a fuss.  It’s like he feels he needs to convince you of its magnitude through exaggerated overreaction from his characters and an ample dose of italics. Those who have read the book know what I mean.  There’s so much hype and so much build up running throughout the novel, and at the end of the day when all is revealed, you can’t help but go ‘meh’.

Furthermore, while I know it is a Dan Brown novel, I must point out that a lot of stuff in the book doesn’t really make sense if you apply some thought to it.

The characters are also not particularly inspiring.  Langdon is your typical cardboard protagonist, the archetypal reluctant hero with a big brain and a solid helping of skepticism (even when you just know he’s wrong!) but unfortunately, zero personality.  However, we all know that about Langdon already, so it’s no surprise.  With all the stuff poor Langdon’s been going through over the last few years I like to think of him as the intellectual Jack Bauer with no combat skills.  Of course, there’s also the strong-minded semi-love interest, the mentor, the mysterious helper, the decoy and the tortured-soul villain with a hidden motive.  Typical Dan Brown stuff really.

As for Brown’s writing, I won’t go into that too much because I don’t feel I’m qualified to critique it, even if that writer has been panned a lot by critics.  Though I will say that I honestly think Dan Brown has improved as a writer since The Da Vinci Code.

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Dan Brown doing the pose that says 'I'm a douche' more than any other pose

However…

The appeal of Dan Brown’s books has never been his writing prowess.  It’s always been Brown’s ability to churn out a believable mixture of fact and fiction using obscure pieces of information – information that ordinary people find interesting but can’t be bothered expending the effort to research.  Inserting this information into a fast-paced action story, however, gives it a whole new perspective.  People may scoff at this suggestion, but I guess you can say that Dan Brown’s books, apart from providing entertainment, also have some educational value.   It’s just that sometimes the readers aren’t smart enough to figure out which is which.

To me, what is most impressive about The Lost Symbol is Brown’s ability to create complex labyrinths of puzzles and codes by linking them to something based in reality. The amount of time, research, thought and effort in creating them must be astounding.  Like Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol is fantastic at utilising the landmarks of the place in which the story takes place.  We’ve had Rome and we’ve had Paris – now add Washington DC to the list.  I wonder where Dan Brown will take us next?

A final point worth noting is that Brown has ensured that The Lost Symbol is a book relevant to its time, with numerous references to popular culture and the latest fads.  It fits in well with the book’s ultimate message about our world today.

In conclusion…

As I said in my First Impressions post, the timing of my review is a good yardstick for what I thought of the novel.  I bought the book on the day of its release (15 September) and it took me around 9 days to complete (I probably would have taken longer had it not been for the 2-hour traffic jam I experienced on Sunday thanks to the Sydney Marathon).

For a slightly overlong 509-page book with reasonably small font, I’d say that puts ‘The Lost Symbol’ in the middle of the pack.   In the Dan Brown hierarchy, I’d place The Lost Symbol firmly after The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. It’s not quite as good as those two in my opinion, but it’s significantly better than Digital Fortress and Deception Point.

3.5 out of 5 stars!

[PS: I’d be very interested to know whether the slew of ‘prediction books’ that came out around the time ‘The Lost Symbol’ was announced (back then as ‘The Solomon Key’) came close to guessing what the book was about. My guess is a firm NO.]

[PPS: What’s the bet there will be a huge upsurge in searches on ‘Noetic science’?]