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Book Review: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

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Ahh, Dan Brown. Is there anyone better at the contemporary, hyper-educated thriller? While this wasn't my favorite of his books, it was certainly an entertaining read. Everything you've come to expect in a Robert Langdon book is there: mystery and misdirection, prominent places, secret societies. What I felt was missing, however, was a strong sense of character development. Especially given the precedent set in Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, I expected much more from this novel.

In his third work featuring symbology professor Robert Langdon, Brown has included all the tropes readers have come to know and love in his stories. Langdon finds himself unexpectedly summoned to Washington D.C. and ends up making a startling, slightly gory, discovery. This sends him running, often literally, into an adventure filled with ancient clues and symbols. One of things which has always drawn me to Brown's books is his use of old stories in an extremely modern context. In this case, the myths surrounding the Freemasons are brought into the D.C. night and thoroughly blended with a psychopathic killer.

His use of the archaic creates an immediate air of mystery, while the inclusion of icons like the Capitol, Library of Congress, and Washington Monument give the reader a contemporary point of access. I also appreciated the role text messages played in this story. They weren't added as a sort of "well everyone's doing it, so let's get them somewhere" device; it wasn't like they were using Twitter. Instead, texting was deliberately used to advance the story and alter the reader's perception. In this respect, Brown has always struck me as a masterful modern novelist.

My biggest hang-up with this novel involved what I perceived as a disjuncture between the quality of charter development in The Lost Symbol and Brown's other books, especially as regards Robert Langdon himself. Let's not kid ourselves, this isn't Dickens we're reading. That said, I always appreciated the time Brown took with his characters, even in the middle of all the clue solving and death defying. In his first two stories, Langdon struck me as an interesting, sensitive Renaissance man who learned from his experiences. In his most recent adventure, however, much of that seems to be lost.

Time and again, I was shocked at his incredulous reactions to the revealed Mason secrets. Here we have a man who has, among other things, found THE holy grail, and yet he can't wrap his mind around the possibility that a mythic pyramid might actually exist. Moreover, even when pieces of evidence sit in his hands, he refuses to at least acknowledge the possibility of belief. I found this problematic for two reasons. On the one hand, he was never so persistently dubious in the other novels, and on the other, you would think he'd have learned to better see the truth behind the myth after his previous adventures. Contrasting to (and perhaps providing a reason for) this thin treatment is the book's frightening and totally unhinged villain.

Mal'akh is his name, but it's clear from the beginning that's a chosen name, a place holder for his true identity. Covered in tattoos, he is obsessed with transformation; indeed, from a certain point of view, he represents the very idea of change. He has altered his skin, his musculature, his name, and even his masculinity in the pursuit of his ultimate goal. It becomes ironic, then, that he primarily acts in opposition to the societal change which would come about if Langdon and his allies succeed in decoding the mysteries before them. That Mal'akh seems oblivious to this becomes more and more understandable as the reader is plunged into his past.

Greater detail is given about Mal'akh and his development than any other single character. Brown does it through a forced perspective, however, as though we were reading the man's memories simultaneous with his review of them. This keeps the reader from discovering his given name until the last minute, and we are are instead given a glimpse into the development of a monster. From his drug addicted origins in a Turkish prison to his murderous and lascivious escapades, up to his sociopathic focus on the Masons, Mal'akh is a truly chilling character. There are tortures he enacts in the story which will make the skin of even the most stouthearted reader crawl. He is certainly the most vivid of Brown's antagonists. I just wish the author had put the same care into the rest of the novel.

Ultimately, this book felt predictable, much more so than Brown's other novels. I didn't see all the details, certainly, but I got many of them early on and found it impossible to miss the location of the lost symbol (even when the characters did). Was I too familiar with D.C., having lived nearby for a few years? Or was I too familiar with Dan Brown? I'd be hard pressed to argue against the idea of the book as an Americanized Da Vinici Code, especially since the younger story lacks the sophistication of its elder. Nevertheless, I was entertained and didn't feel my time wasted in reading this novel, even if its execution undershot its potential.

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