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Onyx reviews: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Dan Brown hasn't exactly stretched as a writer, or even as a plotter, in the six years since his previous novel. In The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon was pressed into action to assist the daughter of a man who was murdered by an albino freak on a misguided mission. In The Lost Symbol, Robert Langdon is pressed into action to assist the sister of a man who is kidnapped by a tattooed freak on a misguided mission. Brown also invokes many of his favorite historical figures and organizations, including the Templars, the Rosicrucians and Sir Isaac Newton.

Granted, it's hard to top a book that tracks down the surviving descendent of Mary Magdalene and identifies the location of the Holy Grail. Once you've taken on the Illuminati, what's left?

Well, the Freemasons, the supposedly secret organization that has been used in dozens of novels and movies as a nefarious cabal that is covertly running political organizations and governments. Movies like National Treasure revel in disclosing how Masonic symbols are hidden in everything from historic Washington, D.C. buildings to the U.S. Constitution to bank reserve notes. They seem like an easy target. However, Brown takes a slightly different tack, treating the Masons with respect and reverence instead of suspicion.

Robert Langdon's close friend and mentor, Peter Solomon, a high-ranking Mason, summons him to Washington to act as a last-minute replacement for an ill speaker at an important event. Langdon can't turn his old friend down, especially when a private jet and a limousine are sent to take him from Cambridge to the capitol. The only problem is that Solomon didn't make the request. Langdon gets to the Rotunda in time to discover Solomon's severed right hand mounted on a pedestal and placed in the middle of the popular destination. Masonic symbols are tattooed on the man's fingertips and a cryptic message is etched on his palm. A phone call tells him that he needs to solve the puzzle of the Masonic pyramid before the end of the day to save Solomon's life.

Langdon has no time to process this shocking development before CIA agents arrive on the scene asserting that Langdon needs to assist them with an urgent case with national security overtones. They cannot, or rather will not, however, disclose the nature of the problem, neither to Langdon nor to readers, which presents a problem for both. It is difficult to take the threat seriously. Sure, Langdon has a series of puzzles to solve, and Peter Solomon's life is at risk, but the real timer driving this thriller is the undisclosed national crisis, and failing to reveal its nature works against Brown.

He isn't helped, either, by the fact that a large portion of his narrative is predicated upon some rather nebulous research in the realm of noetics. Solomon's sister works in a creepy lab separated  by hundreds of yards of darkness from its entrance, deep inside the Smithsonian institute. The isolation is explained as being necessary to isolate her ultra-sensitive equipment from natural phenomena, but its really built like that to give the author the chance to create some effective scenes where characters flounder around in the dark while being pursued by a killer. Noetics, by the way, is a study of the mind/body connection. One of Katherine's main theories is that human thought has mass. If enough people think the same thing at the same time, the combined mass becomes substantial enough to effect change. It's the governing principal behind prayer circles and the power of positive thinking, but it's hard for a reader with a scientific background to take it seriously. Fortunately, the plot does not rely on manifestations of this supposed power, simply in the characters' belief in it.

The villain of the piece is Mal'akh, a steroid-bound mutant who has tattooed every inch of his body save for a spot on the top of his head, which is reserved for the information he wants Langdon to lead him to. He has insinuated himself into the highest order of the Masons so that he can amass all of their secrets and gain access to buildings and information, but he needs Langdon's symbology skills to crack the codes. Though the truth of his identity is part of the book's huge reveal toward the end, it should come as no surprise to anyone reader of crime novels—it relies on one of the oldest tricks in the book. That's the other problem with The Lost Symbol—although the individual puzzles may pose challenges to readers, the book's two biggest mysteries (the second being the location of the end of the quest) could be easily guessed by anyone paying attention, even before the scavenger hunt begins.

Put that all aside, though and enjoy the ride. Keep up with Robert and Katherine as they first labor to keep the Masonic pyramid and its capstone apart and then, later, to bring them together and crack the various puzzles built into it to reveal the location of the secret information the Masons have been safeguarding for millennia. Knowledge known to the ancients but deemed too dangerous in the hands of mere mortals. When the secret is revealed, there may be a certain amount of eye rolling among readers. That was bound to happen—revealing the nature of the ultimate knowledge of mankind is a little like showing the monster in a horror movie. Sometimes the zipper in the monster's suit shows up on camera.

It isn't necessary to buy into any of Brown's philosophy, however. He barely gives readers a chance to process it for most of the book, anyway, as he yanks his characters from one mortal crisis to another. En route, he lays bare some of the most interesting bits of Washington architecture, from the bowels of the Capitol building to the inner workings of the Library of Congress, steeping the characters' dialog in didactic speeches about the significance and history of it all. There must be a better way to get this information across without turning conversations into mini-lectures but, short of using footnotes, thriller writers haven't cracked that particular problem yet. Brown does come up with a fascinating and innovative way to seemingly  kill off a character without actually have him die, though the scientific accuracy of the technique is questionable.

Readers didn't come to this book looking for scientific truths. They came looking for a thrill ride, and Brown delivers in spades. At the end of the day—and it really all does take place over the course of a few short hours—we still know very little about Langdon but we know a lot more about the Masons and about the mysteries of life. At least in the gospel according to Dan Brown.

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