Angels and Demons, Dan Brown

Pocket, 2000, 572 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02736-0

Curiously, sales and awards often have less to do with the work itself than to previous factors. Movie sequels make most of their first-weekend box-office on the strength of the prequel. Authors sell to established fans. Denzel Washington gets an Oscar for TRAINING DAY. This sort of things.

After the blockbuster success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, it’s only natural that all of his back-list should be reissued in mass-paperback format. But after reading Angels and Demons, the direct prequel to The Da Vinci Code, it’s not hard to feel as if Brown is now getting the success he should have enjoyed with the previous book.

From the first few chapters, we can already recognize the ingredients that would make The Da Vinci Code such a success: A mixture of high technology, esoteric knowledge, straightforward (okay; clumsy) prose, pedal-to-the-metal pacing and an interest in the best-known secrets in history. Here, protagonist/symbologist Robert Langdon is summarily brought from Boston to Switzerland when a murder turns out to have links to the ancient legend of the Illuminati. The murder victim is branded by the sign of the mythical brotherhood, his flesh engraved with an ambigram. But there’s even worse; a canister of pure anti-matter is missing. Obviously, Truly Bad Things are about to happen. It doesn’t take a long time for Langdon to link powerful destruction to the Illuminati and deduce that Vatican City is about to go bye-bye. The rest of the book, needless to say, is solidly in the thriller tradition: Learn secrets! Follow the clues! Catch the guilty ones! Save the girl! Find the destructive device!

But a flippant plot summary can’t do justice to the mile-a-minute sheer reading pleasure that we get while going through the book. Brown isn’t much of a stylist, and his exposition style is annoying when you already know what he’s talking about. (The whole CERN section is a bit condescending if you’re already familiar with it. “We invented the web”, etc.) But that soon stops being a problem as the novel advances and we’re swept along the heroes as they run around Rome trying to pierce the secrets of the Illuminati.

While the ideas and secrets and bits of amusing historical trivia unveiled in Angels and Demons aren’t as arresting as the ones in The Da Vinci Code, this first Langdon adventure is far better-constructed than the more popular sequel. Langdon himself is a far more active hero: He fights, figure things out, gets himself out of impossible situations and gets the girl all in slightly more than twelve hours. Whew! The pacing actually accelerates throughout the entire book, unlike The Da Vinci Code, which started deflating halfway through.

Oh, there are still numerous problems with the book: Beyond the clumsy style, the book’s opening is marred by a sense of unreality. Sorry, but CERN doesn’t have an X-33 ready for takeoff. No, “they” don’t have magical powers when it comes to find telephone numbers over the web (unless they’re using DNS records and on-line phone books like the rest of us shlubs.) After that, well, Brown does himself no favours by setting up a false religion/science conflict and lecturing the audience about “who won” in chapter 94. And when the identity of the secret Illuminati master is revealed, well, anyone could have seen it coming…

…but wait! Because right after the big explosion, just as we expect the book to wind down to a graceful finale, something is wrong: There’s still fifty pages left even though everything is in the bag. Could this mean… a twist?

Hell yeah. And not just one. The type of insane twists-upon-twists that pile up and either make the book or destroy it. We’re lucky: Angels and Demons doesn’t just redeem itself, but vaults in the “great thriller” category thanks to the stunning, laugh-in-disbelief finale. Grand revelations. Wonderful red herrings consumed. Dan Brown triumphant, setting the stage for another Langdon adventure.

With retrospect, the success of The Da Vinci Code seems more an more like an inevitability. Books like Angels and Demons are kind of truly honestly good book that end up setting the stage for something bigger. The backlash against Brown is, by now, considerable, but it’s also misguided; if he was still toiling away in obscurity, we’d be in awe of his unusually brainy thrillers.

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