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A rollercoaster of a novel...with some issues.
on 16 September 2009
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.