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on 2 November 2013
I'm no great fan of Dan Brown, because he's not as crazy as most of the writers that I like to read - he's like the pop music version of Stephen King, and I don't even read too much Stephen King. It's too contemporary for me, but I give it a go every now and then.

And Brown isn't a terrible writer - he's more than capable, and that's almost part of the problem. It's convincing enough, it just feels uninspired - it's the alcohol-free beer of the book world, and I'm not sure whether that's a compliment or not. And to make matters worse, Digital Fortress is hardly his greatest novel.

That said, the subject matter should appeal to me - it's been described as a "technothriller", and it's almost a subtle parody of the real-life history of cryptography, a subject that I find fascinating and baffling at the same time. Brown's novel follows cryptographer Susan Fletcher as she attempts to crack a complex new code that threatens national security.

In many ways, it's typical of all of Brown's other work - you'll notice, after reading a couple of novels, that they all follow a formula. That's probably because he was formerly a lecturer in creative writing, and they always say that you need to know the rules before you break them - unfortunately, Brown never breaks them.

Still, Digital Fortress is far from the worst book that I've ever read, and it's definitely worth reading if you've read Dan Brown's work before and enjoyed it. However, don't read this before reading Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol - they're better-known for a reason. They're better.

It's interesting to note, though, that some of the topics that the book covers are even more relevant in this modern world than they were back in 1998, when the book was first published. In this sense, Brown did well to jump on the explosive growth of technology to secure inspiration for his government's surveillance of electronic information about the private lives of its citizens - if you do read Digital Fortress, just remember how the NSA, the British metropolitan police force and other key enforcement organisations are monitoring your activity on social networking sites.

And it's a testament to Dan Brown's writing skills that you do finish the book feeling genuinely paranoid, because it's believable and you wouldn't be surprised if something similar genuinely did happen from time to time - it's not as though the U.S. government is afraid to keep things under wraps. Sometimes I think that they know even more than we think they know, and they laugh at us because of it. Makes me glad to be British, really - our politicians are too inefficient to keep up a charade for long.

Overall, I'd hesitate to recommend this, but you're more than welcome to proceed at your own caution - it's a fairly long read, so think it over carefully before making a final decision.
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on 24 October 2004
'Digital Fortress' is Dan Brown's first book, and it happens to be the last one of his that I've read. It's clear to see that he got better the more he wrote, particularly with 'Angels and Demons' and the 'Da Vinci Code'. But that's not to say that Digital Fortress isn't enjoyable.
In this novel we follow Susan Fletcher, who is the NSA's leading cryptologist, and the whole book takes place inside just one day. In it, Fletcher is taken through a whirlwind of conspiracies and secrets involving the US government's intelligence, in particular their ability to read anyone's email. The adventure is business and personal for Fletcher, as her fiancee is brought into the equation as well. This all makes for an entertaining read. So, certainly worth looking at, but by far Dan Brown's best.
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on 8 April 2005
When Dan Brown wrote the Da Vinci code he had had three previous books as 'practice'. This is his first book and it shows. The plot is reasonable, but nothing like as compelling or page turning as say Angels and Demons. The characters are skeletal versions of characters in subsequent books and I read through it with a nagging feeling that all the jargon and constant reminders of just how brilliant the main characters are was merely covering a lack of substance and real interesting ideas. There are the charactaristic Dan Brown twists but little else.
About twenty pages before the end I began to wonder "is this it or is he saving the best for the final few pages. It was, and he wasn't.
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on 30 June 2015
I'm sorry to say: almost completely unmitigated tosh. Factual howlers abound to make any degree of immersion almost impossible.

I'm sorry to say this because it seems that many people like to deride Dan Brown for being derivative and simplistic: what to me appears to be the view of a "literature snob".

Some years ago I read both "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels and Demons" and enjoyed both. True, neither are works of "great literature" (but neither claim to be); in both the plot is more convoluted than complicated; and the writing style is, shall we say, "easy going". I believe the latter is not, as some critics claim, because it is the upper-bound of Mr. Brown's capabilities; instead, going with the maxim "know your market", Dan Brown deliberately (and quite reasonably) aims for a mass audience including the substantial segment that may only buy one or two books a year to read on the beach. And, when done well, as these two were, there is absolutely nothing wrong with "low brow" escapism. (I pity anyone who considers themselves too "intellectual" to be able to let their mental hair down and just "enjoy" a book).

In the case of Digital Fortress -- a book set in the secretive world of the NSA, computer hackers and code-breaking, there are technical howlers galore: two spoiler-free examples: a 64-bit secret key does not need 64 characters to represent it, and Enigma -- the German war-time encryption machine -- does not weigh 12 tons (the war-time version was about twice the weight of a portable typewriter of the day. Even Colossus, the world's first computer designed to break the successor to Enigma only weighed one ton!). Incidentally, for a far better treatment of the world of the NSA, albeit with a Sci-Fi angle, see the "Rho Agenda" or "Rho Agenda Inception" series by Richard Phillips -- just as made up, but far more believable).

I accept that -- being computer literate -- these are more immersion-breaking than they would be for many, whereas an expert on the real history of the Catholic church and secret societies would probably be less able to read The Da Vinci Code than I was. However, I do feel there is a difference in degree: The Da Vinci Code felt more plausible than Digital Fortress.

Another massive problem is during the climax of the book (spoiler-free): the protagonists not only display a lack of general knowledge that would be frightening for the cream of the US intelligence service, but they even appear to lose the ability to read and comprehend a simple piece of text. This is obviously done to "draw out the tension" but merely results in the reader screaming "that a six-year-old could have seen that!"

A book of this nature needs to be escapist and have dramatic tension to work. The problem is that if you are more than slightly "tech savvy", the howlers will break the escapism, but if you are a "technical innocent", the (incorrect) technicalities will almost certainly will not create the tension in the first place.
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on 9 October 2013
In a book about cryptography you would expect the cast of characters to be largely geeks, dorks, and nerds. Not so in Brown's world. Like all of his heroes they are sophisticated, attractive, well dressed, well adjusted, impossibly successful people who, if they were real, would fill the rest of us with envy. It in fact, they are so likeable as to be despisable. I see this as a problem with most of the Dan Brown's books. He doesn't seem to understand the concept of a flawed hero. They are simply too perfect. It's not what we were all told that people actually want to read in our writing classes and workshops, but his books sell like hot cakes, so go figure. But this near-perfection of his heroes is something that I personally do not like about his work. How did all these computer geeks, academic types, and overworked managers get to be so perfect in every way? I don't think that one can be explained.

So we move on to the story. It's hard to remember the details of it, since Dan Brown stories are littered with complications which arise on every page. Broadly, it concerns a cryptographic algorithm that, if the US National Security agency gets its way, can be manipulated to give them an exclusive view into all the world's digital communications. This infuriates the open source hacker community to no end, and infuriates foreign governments even more. It creates what begins as a bidding war, and ends as the life-and-death battle over their new encryption system.

The story is certainly interesting, and littered chock-full with the digressions and red herrings that are Dan Brown's trademark. He certainly doesn't make it easy for his sympathetic characters. I think it's the only reason you have to sympathise with them. Whenever they begin to make progress, they get knocked back big time. You begin to feel sorry for these people, perfect as they are, never getting a break. It is not exactly life, but sometimes we all feel like that.

Much has been made by other reviewers of the factual inaccuracies in this book. I admit many of them must have passed me by. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the sheer implausibility of the plot that I missed the various details about mainframes, computer hardware, encryption algorithms, and whether you can destroy an entire facility by damaging the IT system's cooling mechanism, but in general I found the technological side of it to be a lot of fun and, myself having been an IT guy in the past, thought provoking.

Many people know that Dan Brown is not a great writer. But he seems to give something that people want. I don't know what that is, and if I did I would try to bottle it. But whatever my complaints about his writing, I confess I enjoyed Digital Fortress. There's a lot of cool stuff in there, albeit some overly cool people posing alongside it. At least it's free from all the pretensions to reality that Angels and Demons and The da Vinci Code specialise in. Nobody is going to read this book and think, wow, all this stuff must be true!

Reviewed by the author of Send Him Victorious.
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on 23 July 2013
This is absolutely my guilty pleasure! I have read this book many times and it never gets old for me. Susan Fletcher is a cryptographer for the secretive agency NSA. She has to cancel her romantic weekend away with fiancé David when there's an emergency at work. And this isn't just any emergency - this could rock the foundations of American security agencies. Susan is the only one with a fighting chance of saving her agency, her country and the love of her life.

I think Susan is a fantastic character in this book. She is very much a woman in a man's world but she has worked hard to achieve her post as head cryptographer. Susan has definitely proved herself to the people she works with.

I definitely don't want to spoil the plot for the people who have not read this book. Dan Brown creates a book which is not predictable in any way, there are twists and turns where you do not expect them. The plot is intriguing and I didn't want to put this book down. I think it must be the mathematician in me but I loved reading about all the codes the characters had to deal with. I found it really interesting that codes have been used by a variety of people including Julius Caeser.

Overall this is a fantastic thriller and my personal favourite of Dan Brown's books. Definitely worth a read if you have read Dan Brown's Robert Langdon series.
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on 23 January 2008
This is the first Dan Brown book I've read, having been gifted with 'Digital Fortress', 'Angels and Demons', 'Deception Point' and 'The Da Vinci Code' and to be honest, I'm a little hesitant to read the other 3 now, even after being told that the others, especially 'Angels and Demons' are really worth looking at.

The characters are VERY one-dimensional and you find yourself not caring what happens to them. The 'twists and turns' in the plot are badly conceived and blazingly obvious. Books like this tend to need a re-read to understand thoroughly but you can guess narrative sections easily and it makes the book lack any sparkle.

There are no descriptive sections, making references to environments hazy at best and still not open enough to let your imagination play.

If you're looking for a mind-killer for a quiet afternoon (and that's all it'll take you to read it) then 'Digital Fortress' is for you. If you're looking for some technical explanations and have a thing for computer-nerdery but don't fully understand it, this is for you. If you want an in-depth, thrilling ride, look elsewhere.

It's almost like Chris Ryan got his hands on wikipedia.

On the plus side, the cover-art and layout of the book look quite nice, and the short snappy childish chapters make it easy to find your place again if you need a cup of tea mid-read.
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VINE VOICEon 9 August 2004
I bought this, Dan Brown's first novel, on the strength of reading The Da Vinci Code. It's not as strong or as indepth as The Da Vinci Code but nevertheless I found it an excellent read.
It centres around code breaking and computing - there is no art history or religion in sight this time. Originally published in 1998 the computing and technology side of the book will no doubt date with time but six years on it is not too dated although I am sure experts will no doubt pick holes in some of it.
The book centres around a couple searching for a key for a newly developed code. The woman, and main character, is in her place of work, a highly secure NSA building dedicated to code breaking. Her partner is in Europe tracking down a second copy of the key which is held inside a ring.
The book is fast paced and I read it within 24 hours. I found it thoroughly ejoyable and although some of the story was a bit predictable there were enough twists to it to make it page turner.
It's not as good as The Da Vinci code but it brought to me a similar excitement when reading it. A great debut 9/10.
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on 9 August 2011
This is a bit of a 'Marmite' book. If you know about computer security and cryptography, this book will infuriate you with its thorough lack of understanding of the topics. Brown seems not to know the difference between a bit and a byte and the cryptographical aspects are substantially flawed. Several crucial plot points revolve around non-existent mathematical laws, a serious misunderstanding of how encryption is used and of how high-end supercomputers work. Brown references two mysterious ex-NSA cryptanalysts in the creation of the book but either they spoke to him for only about ten minutes, or they were fakes, because little of the technical details here make sense.

All that said, the novel behind the details was very entertaining to read. Those without knowledge or interest in the real-world computing will probably find this a very exciting thriller. The romance behind the main character's relationship is a little too 'perfect' to be truly believable, but otherwise the non-technical aspects were good.

In conclusion, you will likely enjoy this book provided you have no interest or knowledge about computing and cryptography. If you do, I would suggest giving it a miss to preserve your humour.
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on 25 March 2006
Having read the Da Vinci Code I decided to see what some of Dan Brown's earlier work was like. Oh dear. At least this is encouragement to new authors that you can write a poor first book and still make a fortune!
Characterisation is very two-dimensional, and Brown makes Spain look a very backward 3rd world type of place, which might have been true in the 1970s but certainly wasn't in the late 1990s - did no-one tell him that Seville was thoroughly spruced-up for Expo 1992? The final denouement was quite literally incredible - unbelieveable - I simply cannot credit that a roomful of the NSA's brightest, from the Director down, couldn't work out what the passphrase was once the clue was revealed -- even a relative ignoramus like myself knew instantly what the passphrase was, yet these characters took another fifteen minutes to figure it out!
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