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The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

I am what you might call a Dan Brown skeptic. I thought that The Da Vinci Code, while entertaining and clever in places, was as loose and ill-fitting as a badly tailored suit--the pieces were there, but they weren't sewn together well, and the prose was dismal. Angels & Demons, which I read and Brown wrote first, was a much stronger story, with a much more complex and interesting villain, but it, too, lacked finesse and was full of overwrought cliches. The movies of these books showcase--rather than hide--these books' flaws, the biggest of which is that, before The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown wrote by formula, even without the brilliant Robert Langdon at the helm.

The formula is this (if you haven't read a Dan Brown book, and plan to, I suggest skipping this paragraph): Someone brilliant stumbles upon a mystery that both gets them into a heap of trouble and also has grave consequences for our nation, or--worse still!--the world at large. The men are handsome and erudite, the women are gorgeous and buxom (in addition to having genius-level intellect), and the villain is always the person you'd suspect least--a mentor or a trusted advisor. In the Robert Langdon books, our esteemed symbologist always ends up bedding the beauty who assists him on his quest, but, like James Bond in tweed, never stays with her longer than the last page of the novel. Oh, and the secrets also stay secret--we know, and of course so does Langdon, but the world he inhabits is allowed to slumber peacefully on in ignorance, because the series depends on Langdon's universe staying exactly the same as it has always been. After all, how many conspiracies and mysteries can one fictional dimension take?

Not so with The Lost Symbol. Oh, the hallmarks of a typical Dan Brown novel are there--there are symbols and codes, artifacts and mystical allegories, ciphers buried in artwork and architecture, the whole shebang. There is a secret order (Angels & Demons' Illuminati and The Da Vinci Code's Priory of Scion have given way to the much better known--and more interesting--American brotherhood of Freemasonry), government interference, a red hot pursuit across a famous city (here, the much more accessible Washington, D.C.), and Langdon and his band of puzzle solvers call upon everything they know about history, science, religion, art, etc. to follow the path of illumination once more.

So don't worry.

It's been six years since The Da Vinci Code was published, but Brown insists he's been writing The Lost Symbol since before his Holy Grail thriller blew the world's mind (and collective wallet) open in 2003. Gossip abounded about his inability to finish the project--I heard an industry rumor that Brown was so blocked on The Lost Symbol (which at that point didn't have an official title, but we all thought it was going to be called The Solomon Key) that he was sending the book to his editor page by page. Maybe that's true, but I saw no evidence of it in The Lost Symbol--if there was any uncertainty, or struggle, he and his editor smoothed it out of the finished product admirably.

The Lost Symbol begins with the initiation of our villain--who calls himself Mal'akh, although he's gone by other names--as a Freemason of the thirty-third degree. But Mal'akh's intentions aren't at all pure--he's on a quest of his own, which, though shrouded in mystery for a long while, is obviously and seriously dark. Mal'akh is Brown's most sinister and terrifying villain, almost a monster--actually, he's definitely a monster, if a monster can be defined as a being without conscience, with an untouchably black heart. Tattooed from head to foot, tall and perfectly muscled, Mal'akh would be frightening to behold in a brightly lit shopping mall, let alone the shadowed halls and darkened rooms he lurks in.

It is Mal'akh who brings Robert Langdon, renowned symbologist (if such a thing could be said to exist) currently teaching at Harvard, to Washington, D.C., under the pretense of having been invited to speak at an event hosted by the Smithsonian. Thinking that his friend and mentor, Peter Solomon, wealthy and brilliant as hell (some things never change), invited him, he is surprised to learn that not only is there not an event, but someone else engineered his transportation to the nation's capital--and that person has Peter Solomon held captive.

There are a few more players in this game, one of the most important being Sato, a high-level operative of the CIA who is determined to keep the secrets of the Freemason just that--secret--at any cost, for classified reasons. Sato is also frightening in a way, and her final goal isn't clear. And then there's Katherine Solomon, Peter's sister, a scientist who studies the field of Noetics--which, as Langdon remarks, is more like magic than science. Or, to be more precise, more like philosophy than physics. Noetics is the the study of the human mind, but not the brain--the intellect. What can our minds do when we put them to it? Noetics asks. Katherine's answers might have staggering implications for the world as we know it--par for the course in a Brown thriller, I know, but it's so fascinating you forget that and concentrate on finding out as much as you can about Noetics and what advances it has really made, in our actual world.

The Lost Symbol is by far Brown's best novel. The prose is solid, the plot drawn tightly, and the philosophical, metaphysical, and spiritual elements combine to create what is terribly compelling argument for the future of us as a human race, which is quite a burden for such a commercial novel to carry, but carry it it does (if it's histrionic, well, it's a Dan Brown novel).

Furthermore, the book has quite a sense of humor, which I enjoyed. Brown pokes fun at himself, at The Da Vinci Code and the success it enjoyed, and at his iconic character Robert Langdon. At one point, when Langdon and Katherine discover that the secret to breaking a code is in a sixteenth century engraving, Langdon is all set to head off to the National Gallery in search of the original--dovetailing nicely with the frenetic museum hopscotching he performs in The Da Vinci Code--but Katherine stops him, saying how dumb it would be to waste time looking at the engraving in person when they could just pull up a high resolution image on the Internet...which is exactly what they do. Brown even embeds a nice little shout-out to his editor--at one point, Langdon places a frantic call to his editor, Jonas Faukman, which is, of course, an anagram of Random House editor Jason Kaufman, who Brown thanks in his acknowledgements. Faukman gets the last laugh, though, ruminating on how the publishing industry would be so much easier if it wasn't for authors.

And yet, what fun stories they tell.

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