Book Review: Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown

Art historian and symbologist Robert Langdon is summoned to Europe to investigate the mysterious death of a scientist with ties to the Vatican. Something very valuable and dangerous is stolen, and several very important people go missing. The killer/thief/abductor threatens a disaster of Biblical proportions in revenge for a legendary atrocity committed by the Roman Catholic Church centuries ago against a shadowy organization of scientists and like-minded free-thinkers. Time is ticking away, and it’s up to our steely-eyed Harvard prof to solve the mystery and save the day.

As I read the story, I developed a wholloping case of deja-vu. If you’ve read Brown’s blockbuster, The DaVinci Code (which takes place some time after this story), it turns out you’ve pretty much read Angels and Demons, except Angels and Demons is set in Rome and focuses on an artist of much less renown than Leonardo DaVinci.

Grisly murders with bizarre messages left at the scene? Check.
Mentally-unbalanced mercenary killer? Check.
Super-cool legendary secret society in conflict with stodgy, conventional Christianity? Check.
Trail of obscure signs embedded in famous works of art, leading to a “truth” repressed for centuries? Check.
A hidden scandal that would rock the world’s foundations if anybody found out? Check.
Good guys who turn out to be bad guys, and vice-versa? Check.
Robert Langdon: art historian, nerdy polymath, and reluctant action hero? Check.
Sultry girl-genius sidekick/romantic interest? Check.

Ah, the joys of formula. Sigh. It’s still a good yarn, though, and I ripped through the 700-plus-page paperback in a couple of evenings. Brown knows how to hold a reader’s attention. The art-based puzzles are fun, the travelogue is interesting, and Langdon is an appealing, accessible hero–an emotionally-vulnerable everyman, despite his braininess. The portrayal of organized religion seems more balanced here than in The DaVinci Code. Rather than telling us that everything we thought about Christianity is wrong, Brown’s characters argue more for the idea that religion and science both have a place in the world and ultimately work in harmony to point us toward God, if we’ll only listen. Though I doubt Brown is a big fan of the Catholic Church, and he certainly isn’t shy about portraying its failings and missteps over the centuries, he also presents characters in the Vatican hierarchy who display true courage, humility, and devotion to God.

Even for a work of fiction, there are some real groaners. Among a shotgun blast of logically-fallacious assumptions that similarity equals causality, Professor Langdon blithely makes a ridiculous connection between Christian symbology and Aztec religious rites. At the story’s climax, he survives an action so implausible it breaks my willing suspension of disbelief, and I’m a fantasy writer. Finally, not one, not two, but three characters’ hobbies become deus-ex-machinas that rescue Langdon and everyone else from disaster. Lesson learned: Don’t give up on that yoga class–it could save your life someday.

If you liked The DaVinci Code or enjoy suspenseful mysteries with lots of dashing about in exotic locales, you’ll probably like this story of Robert Langdon’s earlier days, too. Thrills, chills, a few non-explicit adult situations and the aforementioned grisly murders. Older teens and up.

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