by Dan Brown

1 June 2006 book review by Collie Collier

Credits: For Greg, because he gave me my first ever specifically-requested book review. Woohoo, I feel so official! He even sent me the book — what a sweetie! ;)


There is detailed plot information in this review. Please do not read if you don't like spoilers!


Synopsis

The prequel to Brown's better known (and somewhat better written) The DaVinci Code, concerning Langdon's first encounter with the Vatican. This time the Church is the victim, under humiliating public attack by the Illuminati. A desperate cross-Rome treasure hunt ensues in an effort to rescue innocent clerical hostages and prevent a destructive technological holocaust.

Illuminations



If this subject interests you I also recommend my Firestarter from September 2004:
Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene really married? -or "Is the premise of The DaVinci Code really true?" That's one of my favorite Firestarters to date, in fact.

I came to this book very much wanting to like it. It was the prequel to Brown's later The DaVinci Code, and despite legitimate criticisms of that book, I'd very much enjoyed it, as I love religious mythology and the occasional brain-teaser. Further, I don't find the concept of Jesus being Mary Magdalene's lover particularly new or threatening, considering I'd written a fun speculative paper about that for a college class way back in 1993.

I found Brown's assertion at the beginning of The DaVinci Code amusing (that everything historical in the book was true), but it didn't particularly worry me. After all, everything he mentioned was indeed true to someone — by their very nature, religious myths are created because they speak a truth of sorts. So I was not surprised to see a similar claim of Brown's theoretically well-researched accuracy in Angels & Demons. I figured this claim also would need to be taken with a pinch of metaphorical salt, but that was fine with me — I'm willing to grant small lapses of memory for specific architectural details, in order to enjoy the broader canvas of charming puzzle-solving.

Unfortunately, that was not what I found — in the end, I found myself deeply exasperated and annoyed by the book. Had the author simply written a piece of good fiction, and not tried to claim any sort of historical accuracy — had he even gotten his map of Rome correct, or his portrayal of physics, or something else in the background — and then laid a good fictional story over that, I'd have been relatively fine with the story. But to claim inerrancy and years of research, and that his writing is "FACT" when it's so clearly a horrific mishmash… that I find pompous, overblown, and insulting to the readers.

It appears Brown took quite a few liberties with his "facts," including historical, architectural, symbological, and religious. You can review a few of them on this web page: A list of errors in "Angels & Demons".

To be fair to Brown, we should note here that authors often improve in writing proficiency over time as they write, and Brown is no exception. From a strictly technical viewpoint, Angels & Demons' character development, foreshadowing, and pacing is notably inferior to that of The DaVinci Code. True, it is the handicapped and the "oddity" (i.e. those with allergies or who can't walk, albinos, those born from artificial insemination, etc.) which Brown villianizes in both books, but at least in the first book the (pointlessly unpleasant) man in the wheelchair wasn't the true evil mastermind of the piece. Nevertheless, I found myself struggling to finish the book, since several plot points were immediately transparently clear.

What anticipation?

For example, the minute we meet the secretive, sick, and arrogant head of CERN we know he will die before story's end. Once we are introduced to the four missing cardinals we know they are doomed, and that the one which behaves nicely will be the last to die, and also that he will be the only one to die "well." When we realize the target of the bomb threat is the Catholic Church (as symbolized by the entire Vatican), it's obvious the vial must be sitting on the supposed tomb of St. Peter, the theoretical "father" of the Catholic Church. And as soon as we read about the assassin being sexually abusive, we know there will be a scene where Vittoria must be rescued from rape.

Langston: idiot savant?

The character development did not impress me either, unfortunately. I found Langston initially wooden and pedantic, to the point that he refused to believe evidence before his eyes. Frankly, having Langston blathering on about how the Illuminati do not exist any more when he's got one of their known symbols in front of him seemed pretty stupid to me. So they don't exist — so what? Copycat murderers kill their victims just as dead.

Further, every true researcher I've met is passionate about their chosen subject — they actually care about any precious, priceless, unique artifacts of their field of study. I can understand destruction of unique artifacts in order to save human life, but I found Langston's complete lack of care or remorse in his destruction rather unrealistic. Worse, he did this not once, but twice — and both times there wasn't the faintest shred of dismay that I could see! What sort of scholar is he supposed to be? He did not behave like any truly dedicated researcher I've ever met.

Finally — and perhaps most importantly — true researchers and scientists, who are doing this for the love of knowledge, don't rigidly and patronizingly insist their research irrevocably demonstrates no further research need be done, or that something is "impossible" simply because they say so. I had to shake my head in amusement at Langston's narrow-minded assertion that it was impossible to write the word "Illuminati" so it could be read both right-side up and upside down, when the very frontispiece of the book had the title Angels & Demons written that way. To me this set Langston up as silly and short-sighted from the very beginning.

Thus, his personality transformation throughout the story was nothing short of absolutely miraculous. Not only did he effortlessly solve, in mere minutes, puzzles which have remained unresolved for centuries, but he also cleverly foiled not one but two death traps. A shame his miracle-working didn't extend to saving the life of the last cardinal.

Frankly I think that man died because Langston was an idiot when it served the plot — which I consider a weakness of the story. Why else would Langston attempt to attack a known, ruthless, well-trained assassin by holding out a gun and walking up to the man on unsteady footing until he's in arms' reach of the assassin? Further, Langston unpreparedly attempts to attack this known violent murderer not once but twice! Is Langston incapable of learning from previous experience?! If so, how did he solve the Illuminati puzzles? Is he perhaps an idiot savant?

Vittoria: symbolic spoils of battle

The beautiful, brilliant, and "available" daughter of the murdered man (who was, of course, loved by everyone) is another incredibly old and over-done trope. In this book she's named "victory." In The DaVinci Code the available woman is the niece, not a daughter, of the murdered man — but she's equally iconically named: Sophia, or "wisdom." Unsurprisingly, Vittoria's rigorous scientific training yields whenever necessary to plot-required "feminine" emotionalism, which irritated the heck out of me. Why is it no male characters do that? Wouldn't it make sense that a male symbologist would be better at intuitive emotional leaps than a female scientist?

Unfortunately I suspect the author feared this would symbolically emasculate his hero. So we must put up with Langston performing what are quite clearly intuitive leaps — poorly disguised as "reasoning" and "intellect" — while Vittoria repeatedly suffers under the author's need to render her "emotional" and therefore less intellectually threatening. For example, I was appalled at Brown's groundless, blanket assertion: "Vittoria knew there was logic somewhere in Kohler's arguent, but she also knew that logic, by definition, was bereft of moral responsibility (pg 95)."

Logic:

the science of reasoning;

the science of the operations of the understanding subservient to the estimation of evidence;

the science whose chief end is to ascertain the principles on which all valid reasoning depends, and which may be applied to test the legitimacy of every conclusion that is drawn from premises;

the art or practice of reasoning.

— from "The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language."

I don't like groundless assertions which smack suspiciously of privileging emotion over reason — especially when they're for women only. Frankly, I can't find any such definition, and I think it was made up just to suit Brown's need to show Vittoria as being opposed to the incredibly unnecessarily unpleasant Kohler. Please, could we possibly use a larger plot-hammer here? Or better yet, could we try to dispense with some of the unnecessary hyperbole?

Brown adds insult to injury yet again with his depiction of Vittoria as she watches the camerlengo make the triumphant discovery of the vial's location: "Langdon had seen in her eyes a wariness that looked, unsettlingly, a lot like female intuition." Come on, Brown — make up your mind! Is Vittoria using logic and intuition like the brilliant iconoclast scientist she's supposed to be, or pointlessly irrational "feminine" emotionalism? And again: wouldn't the symbologist be the one more likely to experience the sudden intuition of meaningful symbols meshing into an intuitive leap?

Further, I kept getting tripped up by Brown's almost ludicrous attempts to keep increasing the emotional pressure. By the time we got to "Vittoria's emotions were a cyclone of twisting agonies," on page 498, and yet more amazingly overblown blather on pg 501 (which I'm not going to bother typing in — it goes on for almost the entire page), I couldn't take it seriously any more.

What the hell is a cyclone of twisting agony?! Why is it the girl who must suffer under these nonsensical "feminine intuition" sorts of hysterical pronouncements? I have this ludicrous mental image of Brown thinking, "Oh, she's over-emotional, good — she's not as scary now, despite being more brilliant and gorgeous than I could ever aspire to." Does Brown truly believe his readers are so insecure and shallow?

Vittoria really is annoyingly perfect too — brilliant scientist in her own right; a sympathetic orphan adopted by her now-murdered father so she's even more sympathetic; young, nubile, gorgeous, leggy, scantily dressed, and "European-exotic" — Brown even has her know yoga so she can escape from the ropes and rescue Langdon while he's being an idiot in attempting to rescue her. Even more moronically, Brown later implies her knowledge of yoga makes her an incredible sexual partner to the older Langston. For Christ's sake, was that really necessary? I find it demeaning to men that Brown had to stoop quite so obviously to making poor Vittoria nothing more than a lonely middle-aged American male's wet-dream.

Kohler & Olivetti: the "fall guys"

Unfortunately it is not just the protagonists who suffer under Brown's need to create blatantly black-and-white, two-dimensional characters. There's also Kohler, the wheelchair-bound, violently unsympathetic, rabidly anti-religious head of CERN. Frankly, short of having Kohler throw up on Langston's shoes, I can't think of many ways Brown could have made him less appealing. He's emotionally and ideologically rigid, he knowingly violates people's expectations of privacy, he manipulates people without regard for them — he is completely without any redeeming features. Unfortunately Brown's blatant manipulation to set him up as the apparent Illuminati mastermind reminded me of precisely what we were supposed to most dislike in Kohler himself.

I was also impressed with the smear job done on the personality of Olivetti, the head of the Swiss Guards. His incredible, unprofessional arrogance is just breathtaking. Not only does he not inform his (admittedly temporary) superior that four cardinals have gone missing — the four most likely to be voted in as the new pope, in fact — but through sheer, bloody incompetence he also refuses to believe what's going on.

By the time the third cardinal is murdered, everyone knows fire will be used, but does Olivetti notify the fire department, so the fire trucks are alerted and ready to go? Does he even have an officer assigned to Langston? No, of course not — that'd require intelligence on the part of a character Brown wants us to dislike. Perhaps most damning, poor Olivetti is used even more poorly in order to make his death "righteous" instead of a tragedy: the author has him strongly suggest to the camerlengo that the camerlengo publicly lie to the faithful about the incipient bomb.

This is not to suggest the Catholic Church is completely free of deception — considering the sheer, staggering wealth of the church, greed and lust for power are almost a given. However, to imply deception is quite so standardized and routine in the Church suggests a level of cynicism on the part of the author which seems more indicative of his personal disillusionment than of any real understanding of faith. In other words, I may not personally believe in the deity or the religion — but that doesn't mean no one at all can. For the author to write as if faith were nothing more than a convenient facade is to unfairly cheapen true belief.

The assassin: unmitigated evil

Then there's the assassin, who is just too conscience-salvingly evil to believe in. By turns arrogantly erudite and crudely foul, his depiction is an unconvincing mishmash of whatever would most suit the plot at the moment. I couldn't help but wonder where a man of god would so quickly find such a brutal cult murderer as this guy. Who trained the assassin to his zealotry? There are no answers — he's just a plot device, there to be hated and disposed of once he's no longer necessary, by "heroic" mutual action of the protagonist/heroes.

Frankly, the entire cult must have been badly twisted over the years, if that was supposed to be an accurate representation of them, as Brown asserts. Yes, legendarily they were supposed to be conscience-less murderers, but they had nothing to do with the Illuminati. They were supposed to be an extremely radical sect of the Islamic faith — check out the wikipedia page on them. To my knowledge they never believed abusing and raping women was acceptable — they were proud of their ability to kill only their targets, and to avoid innocent bystanders. Indeed, it was their devotion to the doctrines of their faith (including martyrdom) that was supposed to be their guarantee into heaven, complete with virginal houris and other traditional pleasures of the flesh.

So why did Brown feel the need to make our protagonists so boringly perfect, and Kohler, Olivetti, and the assassin so unsympathetic? Perhaps so we'd think poorly of the unsympathetic ones, and not mind when they died? I don't like being so blatantly and badly manipulated — how can I have any sympathy for such two dimensional characters?

Pacing without moderation

I'll touch only lightly on the pacing of the book. The narrow time frame in which the various events are supposed to occur (a mere handful of hours) causes an almost numbingly break-neck sort of story. In a peculiar bit of reverse logic common to poorly written fiction, once I realized it was nigh-on impossible for someone to solve centuries-old puzzles, defy multiple death-traps and murder attempts, and race all over Rome like that… I then knew the protagonist must and would succeed.

There was no tension for me any more after that point. The only surprise was who the actual mastermind was, and by the point he was revealed, I found I didn't really care. If anything, I was somewhat miffed with the author for his blatant character manipulation — they were just astonishingly two-dimensional. Why didn't he have them wear color-coded black or white cowboy hats if he was going to treat them so iconically?

Symbolism

Speaking of color-coded icons, Brown keeps emphasizing symbolism throughout the book. Let's take a look at just what symbolism he ascribes to the Catholic Church, through his depiction of the camerlengo, the "true man of God." To be blunt, this final example of horrible character development left me with an incredibly bad taste in my mouth.

First we start with a virgin birth from a nun — an "only begotten son." We also learn through flashbacks that the camerlengo has known all his life he "belongs" to God. It is when he "miraculously" survives a terrorist bombing attack (in which his mother is conveniently killed) that the boy becomes the ward of a Catholic priest, eventually joining the clergy himself as well. When that guardian-priest becomes the Pope, the young man continues his relationship with the older man, faithfully serving the new Pope.

However, it is when the Pope reveals to the camerlengo that he has a son — thereby shattering the camerlengo's belief in the Pope's holiness — that the camerlengo decides he must save the Church by taking matters into his own hands. He murders his kindly old mentor, arranges for the murders of several other innocent bystanders, and stages an elaborate show to terrorize everyone into "coming to God."

He is conscienceless about his actions until he is informed the Pope's son was conceived via "sinless" artificial insemination (which according to the Catholic Church is very much a sin indeed), and that he himself is that son — at which point he is overcome by remorse. He publicly immolates himself as a sacrifice to God, and dies pleased that the (by this time hyper-emotional) crowd is finally "coming to God." Once he is dead, everyone else decides to keep the camerlengo's insanity a secret, so people's faith won't be shaken.

What did you say?!

I can't find anything to support Brown's assertion that Celestine V's body was recently found to have a 10" nail driven into the head (although you can read more about the issues the Church was having at the time in this blog — search for "The Church in Moral Crisis").

In the real world, poor Celestine V abdicated after less than 6 months as Pope, and was imprisoned for the two remaining years of his life by his successor. I found one reference in wikipedia (not the most accurate of sources, alas) to a "suspicious hole" in the head of the body, but Brown's assertion that Celestine V was in fact murdered by Boniface VIII (to speed up the process of him becoming the next Pope) seems to exist only in Brown's fantasy world.

This was an incredible hatchet job on the Catholic Church, and frankly I'm astonished people were more upset by The DaVinci Code than by this contemptuous parody of Christianity's founder. By so closely aping Jesus' life through the life of the murderous, mad camerlengo, Brown has mockingly suggested not just that Jesus was a non-holy fraud responsible for the violent deaths of millions — but also that the Catholic Church is a deliberate, conscienceless peddler of false miracles, fake piety, and emotional manipulation of the masses. Later, he refers to the visions of St. Teresa as "sordid," and states (through the example of Celestine V) that deceased Popes are buried without examination of the bodies in order to hide how many have been murdered! Could Brown possibly be more insulting?!

Curiously, the camerlengo believing he had a message from god to check St. Peter's tomb for the bomb seems more legitimate to me than much else in the book. If I could figure out where the bomb was from the clues, why couldn't a devout man do so — and then believe the intuitive message must be from god? Alas, we discover he was lying all along — god forbid there be any true, generous faith in the Church of this book!

Worse, we have to suffer through the camerlengo refusing the possibility of science in religion. Despite his religion being based on a gentle and tolerant man who practiced respect of the free will of others, the best the poor camerlengo can come up with to encourage people to come to god is an archaic form of the carrot and the stick — what he refers to as "horror & hope" being the required elements to move people.

Science:
1 : the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding

2 a : a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study

b : something (as a sport or technique) that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge

3 a : knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method

b : such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena

4 : a system or method reconciling practical ends with scientific laws

— from Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

He frames this in yet another of Brown's binarily simplistic proclamations: "Science, by definition, is soulless." Um… hold on. First, that is certainly not the definition of science. Secondly, if we're talking religious definitions, then religion too is soulless — if I remember correctly, the Catholic Church teaches souls belong to humans alone. Further, if this is supposed to be more symbolism, it shows the camerlengo is a sad and ignorant fool regarding the symbolism of the very religion he purports to follow.

Symbolically, a sacrifice based on a lie will not bring people to truth — and yet the "trembling, quavering" cardinals decide they'll just "play along" with the camerlengo's public self-sacrifice, so they don't have to face the consequences of what's happened. What sort of religious faith does that imply? Is this the only representation Brown could come up with for examples of religious belief in the Catholic Church? Or are we supposed to identify the old, fearful, symbolically emasculated cardinals as valid icons of religious faith and Catholicism? If so, what does that say about Brown's religious views?

The poor camerlengo ends up symbolically emasculated by his job, and dehumanized in the story through the constant repetition that he belongs to god — he is not "of us" — and of repeated emphasis on his inexperience and youthful emotionalism. Frankly, I found him just too stupidly crazy. Considering the history of the papacy, a Pope having a son is hardly news. That this should cause the camerlengo to go utterly mad and refuse to ever talk again to the Pope — to murder the kindly old mentor who raised him from childhood — I found a bit much to swallow. If we're looking at the symbolism again, it sounds like Brown is suggesting the Catholic clergy is dangerously unconnected to reality. This may be true… but Brown didn't have to so viciously satirize the entire religion to say that, I think.

One last caveat…

Suggesting the Catholic Church borrowed rituals or symbolism from the Aztecs is utter nonsense. The early, still-forming church of the first millennia had no contact with them — heck, they didn't even exist until the 1400's! Sacrificing the perfect son to insure the fertility of the land has a far more "classic" lineage. The ancient Greeks, the Norse, other cultures from that time: all had such symbolism to borrow from — but not the Aztecs. I suspect Brown was trying yet again to tar the Church with the "ick" brush, as the Aztecs are generally perceived as rather brutal and bloodthirsty.

I guess that pretty much sums up my dismay with this book. If you're going to claim your story is factual and your protagonist is an expert on symbolism — then get your facts straight!

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