The Lost Symbol Review

Posted by Alex Jordan on

Stuck in the purgatory that is a full-time job and a half-functional new apartment, free time is hard to come by. Right now, I can reconfigure the free time that is available to me right this second into a mini-review. I'd rather reconfigure it into time spent designing my game, but, hey, my laptop is way over on the other side of the Potomac right now.

With that in mind, here's a mini-review for Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, which I had time to tackle while I was in Rhode Island last week:

It is both a good and not-so-good book.

Gee, that sounds noncommital. Well, it is noncommital. When you read a Dan Brown book, you get a tradeoff. You'll get some great pacing and evocative descents into religion and science at the cost of cookie-cutter character personalities and a pretty bland writing style.

(Hey, pay attention! Although I'll avoid Spoilers, my descriptions may ruin the book for readers who appreciate literary structure as much as they do an unblemished plot.)

I've read Deception Point, Angels & Demons, and The Da Vinci Code before this book, so by now I've become acquainted with Brown's literary crutch: man and woman team up to solve historical/religious/scientific mystery perpetrated by villain(s) that is controlled by an ultimate Big Bad that is previously established as a sympathetic character. That framework still allows for a bit of creativity, though, and I found myself more or less blown away by the relevations in Angels & Demons during my first read-through. (I especially liked Brown's sense of bate-and-switch in that book and Brown's maturity in letting the reader realize their nasty results of those tricks for themselves. He capitalized on certain literary cliches, i.e. the Final Revalation of the Big Bad and What His Motives Are, to add a wonderful sense of misdirection.)

The Lost Symbol follows this framework too, although the villainous agent and the Big Bad With a Hidden Identity are one and the same. For me, the lowest point of the book came the moment Brown started being coy about who his villain was, about halfway through. Although the writing is vague, anyone familiar with Brown's style and, I guess, the fucking English language will figure out who the Big Bad is mere moments into Brown's description.

The answer was so bloody obvious that I found myself hoping that other characters had hidden motives merely to offset the completely obvious revelation about the main antagonist. Alas, no. Two particular supporting characters - the Architect of the Capitol and the Dean of the National Cathedral - offer the bearest hint of mystery before firmly stranding themselves in Plot Conveyence Device mode. Appear, act mysterious, offer explanation, get sidelined for the rest of the book.

(And speaking of explanations, the book has a frightening amount of drive-by explanations. It seems like just lazy writing to introduce a plot point, let it languish, and then admit a few chapters down the line that the issue was resolved off-page within a single paragraph.)

Readers familiar with Brown's work will also note the appearance of a menacing Is-He/She-a-Good-Guy-Or-Bad-Guy figure of authority. Unlike Angels & Demons' Maximilian Kohler or The Da Vinci Code's Bezu Fache, the allegiance of The Lost Symbol's CIA Office of Security Director Inoue Sato is never really in doubt.

And then there's Robert Langdon and his latest female sidekick, Katherine Solomon. I don't think I need to speak at length on their characters, as Langdon and his inevitable female follower's archetype are pretty well-established at this point. Slightly more galling is the fact that these characters near-instantaneously recover from a very horrible, very personal revelation. Their chuminess after the fact is downright bizarre.

Okay, so, we've got uninspiring characters, uninspiring plot twists, and overused cliches and literary structuring as things that bother me. But how 'bout the story itself?

Langdon is once again called upon at the 11th hour to decypher symbols and solve an ancient mystery. As it turns out, this mystery is literally called the Ancient Mysteries, a wealth of untold knowledge of life, death, and God only accessible through the eponymous Lost Symbol, which is buried somewhere in Washington, DC. The Big Bad kidnaps Langdon's friend and forces Langdon to decypher a bunch of Freemason symbols around DC so that the Big Bad can uncover the Lost Symbol and achieve the ultimate enlightenment.

Got that? It's probably Brown's least compelling plot, but when his previous two books' plots threatened the very foundations of Christianity, it's hard to top that. As usual, it's entertaining to watch Langdon solve the puzzles that Brown throws at him and learn all sorts of neat things about DC, Freemasonry, and a science called noetics that is - true story! - based upon the idea that human thoughts have physical tangibility.

And once again, Brown creates some exciting action sequences that dovetail nicely with the academic rigors of his plot. I enjoyed the hell out of one scene that involves an encounter between two people in an utterly pitch black room, described only with the senses of touch, smell, and hearing. The book also features a moment that is so unbelievable and so pivotal that I was shocked by what I read. Figuring that Brown was a weak writer and suspicious of some witholding of information or a sleight of hand, I ultimately discovered that (a) I really loved the explanation, (b) the explanation had ample foreshadowing, and (c) it demonstrated an ability to screw with the reader that Brown utilized so effectively in Angels & Demons.

These action sequences play out against the tableau of Washington. Non-Washingtonians will love the usual breathless pacing among famous landmarks, while Washingtonians should enjoy the attention to detail that only occasionally goes awry. (Nerdrage: southbound Metro trains do not come out of a rail tunnel at King Street Station! Only northbound ones do!)

In conclusion, the book has its share of shortcomings, but also its share of the Good Stuff that people really dig Dan Brown for: mysterious puzzles, the collision of academia, science, and religion, good action, and a winding path to a final revelation. It certainly isn't crap, and I doubt I could write something better if I was forced to. Give it a read if you get the chance.