Angels and Demons

With The Da Vinci Code opening this Thursday, I thought it was finally time to get around to reading Angels and Demons last weekend. Here is my quick review – it’s light on details because I wanted to keep it relatively spoiler-free.

To call Dan Brown formulaic is along the lines of calling Michael Moore partisan. It’s annoying at first until you realise that it’s so blatant that he could only be doing it on purpose. Once you accept that, you sort of strap in and enjoy the ride.

So yes, Angels and Demons is formulaic. At a whole-book level, it has virtually the same plot as The Da Vinci Code. (To be accurate, the former was written first.) At a lower level, both books read like a series of episodes, each of which gives Robert Langdon a short amount of time to solve a puzzle, which he does, but with one small flaw that he will realise at the very last moment. This is even more obvious in Angels and Demons because for the bulk of the book, all of the puzzles are the same.

This sounds like it should be very boring. But it’s not even remotely boring to read. Instead, it has an effect something like a tune with a chorus, that there’s something familiar to return to; and it makes every twist stand out more against the predictable background. It gives the book a sort of comfortable structure and flow. And when the episodes end and you’re still a good chunk of paper away from the end of the book, it leaves you wondering what to expect.

It’s hard to say more of this without spoilers, so I’ll move on to something that did annoy me. I had a very hard time keeping suspension of disbelief, particularly through the early part of the book. Partially it was to do with Brown’s treatment of particle physics and science in general. Both books liberally mix fact with fiction when it comes to Christian history and conspiracy theories, which is fine, because the subject is fairly obscure, in some places deliberately obscured, and quite subjective, which leaves a lot of room for Brown to pull supposed “facts” out of his butt. But this doesn’t work nearly as well for modern science, and he did a pretty unrealistic job with it.

To some degree you can forgive him for this – it’s a tall ask to portray particle physics in a way that doesn’t go over the heads of the popular audience, but is still realistic, and then add a new discovery to it that consistent with known facts, but is not already discovered. (There are any number of stories where some idea that’s obvious to anyone in the field is passed off as a new breakthrough. Good Will Hunting comes to mind.) The problem with this in Angels and Demons isn’t necessarily that he does it unrealistically, but that he tries to do it at all. It’s obviously not his strong point, and the finer details of it aren’t really critical to the plot. It may have been a better book if, like The Da Vinci Code, it stuck to the Catholic conspiracies.

There are other places in the book where you can’t help but fall out of the world of the story and say “I don’t believe this”. It’s frustrating to be repeatedly told that ambigrams couldn’t be reproduced by even the most sophisticated modern techniques, when there are obviously fictional examples sitting right there on the page in front of you. Another example is the Papal election – unfortunately Dan Brown was 14 the last time a Pope died, so he was writing from ignorance when he described the election as a media non-event in the modern day. Reading it a year after the media-saturated death of John Paul II and election of Benedict XVI in 2005, you can’t help but feel that Brown forgot how many Catholics there really are in the world.

The pace did pick up in the later parts of the book, as he focused on his strengths and really got into the swing of the story. Unfortunately (and without spoiler details), he may have gone a little too far towards the James Bond end of the spectrum with near-death escapes towards the end. I always felt nervous about the fate of the characters, but towards the end I realised that it wasn’t because I was worried they wouldn’t survive – instead, I was worried that their survival wouldn’t be explained to my satisfaction. I was more concerned about the fate of the plot than the fate of the characters. This is not a good sign.

Still, I devoured Angels and Demons. You can forgive Brown for exploiting the semi-factual religious conspiracy formula a bit, because it does work. In fact, it could well have been better without the attempts to move outside that formula – in which case, it could easily be treated as an experimental first draft of The Da Vinci Code.


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