Sep 28, 2009

YetiReview: The Lost Symbol

21 Words or Less: Everything you expect from a Dan Brown thriller plus a extra helping of preachiness intended to start controversy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Good: Typical Dan Brown Thriller; Well-researched, interesting asides about American history and Freemasons; Fast-paced, popcorn read full of hidden messages and secret history.

The Bad: Preachier than previous thrillers in what appears to be an attempt to recreate Da Vinci controversy; Formulaic (although in a way that works)

I'm going to keep this quick because everyone knows what this book is all about and Dan Brown isn't going to see any increase in sales from me mentioning The Lost Symbol on Stomping on Yeti. On the other hand, I'd be more than willing to reciprocate if he felt like mentioning my site in one of his books. I'm not going to say no to an increase in viewership of... How do you divide by zero? Anyway, this past week I breezed through the 500 odd pages of the newest Robert Langdon adventure. Was it a great book? No. Was it a fun book? Yes.

I rate books based on expectations and with Dan Brown it's easy to know what to expect. You're going to have short chapters, fast pacing, and lots and lots of short asides disguised as conversation between characters as they attempt to decipher the latest clue in a series of connected mysteries. I wasn't disappointed. In the Lost Symbol, Brown brings the action back to America, where Langdon and friends explore the rich history of the nation's capital.  I'm not going to delve into the plot much as half the fun is trying to figure out whats really going on. My recommendation is simple: If you liked Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code you will most likely enjoy The Lost Symbol.

My only caveot is that Brown seems to be struggling to find controversial material. The main "concept" with The Lost Symbol is tenuous at best and Brown tends to expound upon it to drive home it's importance. He does this by having characters who believe preach to characters who don't and their "arguments" are suprisingly one-sided for people intelligent enough to solve mysteries that have endured for centuries. The short infodumps work well for Brown; prolonged discourses? Not so much. I also think that controversial plotline was tacked on. The thriller would have been exactly the same without it and it didn't raise the stakes or impact the plot at all. If anything it was a poor attempt to bring the female lead into the story. I had to take away a half a star for deliberate trolling.

That's it for my review of The Lost Symbol but I'd like to talk a little bit about my feelings on Dan Brown in general. His writing is very deceptive but he knows exactly what he is doing and he excels at it. First he writes short chapters. In The Lost Symbol he divides 510 pages into over 130 chapters. That's less than 4 pages a chapter. Doing this tricks the reader into feeling like they are reading faster and also boosts the page count as almost half the pages contain less than a full page of text. It's easy to assume that the book is captivating when the pages just fall away.

Secondly, Brown switches point-of-view any time there is about to be a discovery/action scene/revelation and he doesn't get back to it until a few chapters later. Since the chapters are so short, the reader keeps turning pages until they find out what happened. However, if you read to chapter 36 to get the resolution to the cliffhanger from chapter 33, you are left with the cliffhangers from chapter 34 and 35. It's a never ending cycle of teases and it works. It's especially apparent when Brown introduces time lapses mid-chapter which would serve as natural breaks but aren't exciting enough to keep the pages turning.

Brown does excellent research (although he could be making it all up) but he tends to write it in "tell don't show" fashion. It's infodumping but interesting infodumping in very small packets. If Langdon wasn't obsessed with explaining every little attribute. I feel like he would be very irritating to be around if you weren't solving a centuries old mystery. At least Brown has a thesaurus so Langdon doesn't ask "Do you want to know how I knew that?" every half a page or so.

All in all, Brown isn't the best writer and his books tend to be very formulaic if read closely together but I feel like he's got tremendous staying power. In order for his books to work he's got to do a lot of research and tie everything together. The research is going to prevent Brown from releasing books on a fast enough schedule for the vast majority of his audience to realize how formulaic the books actually are. This often happens with Grisham, Sparks, and other consistent NY Times Bestselling authors. They publish too fast and people catch on that they've read this book before. It doesn't keep them from selling a million copies, so I'm not sure they mind. A Robert Langdon thriller every three years or so will be a big hit. It's easy to see why the pieces work the way they do, but it's hard to resist their charm.

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