Angels & Demons

Reviewed: July 30, 2004
By: Dan Brown
Publisher: Pocket Books
569 pages, $10.99

Angels and Demons is the first of Dan Brown's books to use symbologist Robert Langdon as its central character. It was followed by the immensely popular thriller, The DaVinci Code.

This sequel has ridden the bestseller lists for about a year now, has inspired the mass market reissue of Brown's previous three novels and, because of the nature of its religious content, triggered a flood of study guides, keys, and other books both extolling and debunking its central idea.

Brown has thus become an instant celebrity and the source of some contention in both religious and non-religious circles. I haven't read The DaVinci Code yet. On the recommendation of a friend I've been working my way through Brown's earlier books, and have found them good light reading. I don't know if he deliberately works in pairs or not, but the first two novels both involved shady doings within the US intelligence community, scams that drew in large numbers of people, backfired, and resulted in more than a few deaths. They were a mating of "primitive cunning and high tech means," to borrow a phrase from Bruce Cockburn.

Angels and Demons and its sequel both deal with religion. Angels and Demons begins, however, with science as Langford is spirited off to a high level Swiss-based international research facility to help them solve a murder. Langdon is not a detective, except in a very literary sense, but the strange symbols found on the corpse caused the head of CERN to send for a specialist in this area.

This is actually where this book began to fall down for me. I'm guessing that Brown picked the Illuminati as a villainous organization because they are not that well known as secret societies go, unless, that is, you read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I have, so my attention began to waver as Langdon dropped into didactic lecture mode and explained who they were to everyone else that he met in the book.

More exciting was the fact that they had stolen a quantity of anti-matter and were proposing to use it to decimate Vatican City during the conclave being held to choose the new Pope.

As part of the game the four top candidates for the Papal throne have been kidnapped and were to be killed ritually in the hours before the final explosion. Langdon and the adopted daughter (also a top scientist) of the murdered man are rushed to Rome, where they must try to solve a centuries old mystery, stop four murders, and locate the bomb before the magnetic casing around it decays and allows the anti-matter within to make cataclysmic contact with the rest of the world.

A major portion of the story is now taken up by a cat and mouse game all over Vatican City, during which I think I learned more about this place and the work of the artist Bernini than I really wanted to know. Brown's plotting here got swamped in the detail, and what is memorable is that this section of the book partakes of a typical pulp magazine hunt-confront-fail-escape-repeat cycle that would be familiar to readers of magazines with names like Unknown Adventures.

I'm not saying that this can't be used successfully in a thriller, I just feel that it wasn't here.

For me the book was redeemed by the final section. I had been anticipating an anticlimax after the events on page 445, but Brown tricked me and did manage to notch the pace up as well as advance the mystery during the remaining 120 or so pages. In the end it was worth the journey, but he did have me worried for a bit.

I'm not sure if I'll pick up the next one though. It's based on a central idea you can read all about in a 30 year old work of speculative history called Holy Cross, Holy Grail (along with several sequels). I fear the story is going to be completely lost in the explanations.