Book Review: The Lost Symbol

By Dan Brown, 2009

Copyright © 2009 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2009.10.19

(Spoiler alert! This review contains plot points and end-of-story information. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

Oddly enough, Dan Brown’s new thriller “The Lost Symbol” is actually about “the lost word,” according to the last dozen chapters or so. I guess those who came up with the title thought “Symbol” would be more interesting than “Word.”

It wouldn’t have mattered. Riding the crazy popularity of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” (both now major motion pictures), they could have called this third tome “A Book By Dan Brown,” and it would have sold millions.

Like the last two Brown books, The Lost Symbol features the amiable and knowledgeable symbologist Robert Langdon who’s already been unlucky enough to tangle with the Catholic Church, Opes Dei, and the Illuminati. This time, he’s pitted again the evil Free Masons and their plot to take over the world.

Or is he?

In the book’s first major fault, Brown doesn’t paint the Free Masons as a sinister hidden society that’s out to get everyone. Okay, he’s being fair to them, right? Keep reading. In chapter after chapter, Brown starts by describing a dark and ancient ritual of the Masons, and then quickly follows with Langdon (and other characters) who explain it away as an amazing enhancement to human understanding, and how the Masons are actually man’s best friend. Again, and again, and again.

In fact, after I’d gotten a third of the way through, I wondered if Brown were actually on vacation, and let the Masons write the book. It sounded like an advertisement for the organization.

I’m not saying they’re evil, or even sinister (although, with 16 U.S. presidents on their rosters, one has to wonder...) But Brown didn’t have to be so annoyingly defensive of the group, just to tell us a story.

Eventually, the reader realizes that the Masons weren’t introduced as the antagonist of the story, but merely an over-mentioned group that’s provided the code and symbols on which the story is built. The bad guy is just one guy.

So what’s the plot?

This bad guy, Mal’akh, who is brilliant, rich, and socially adept (yet also completely evil and completely covered in tattoos, which he completely hides with make-up), believes there’s a hidden secret called “The Ancient Mysteries” somewhere in Washington, D.C.

Mal’akh, the first character mentioned in the book, has penetrated the ranks of the Freemasons and risen to the highest level, hoping to gain access to the secrets they’ve hidden. He also kidnaps 33rd degree Mason Peter Solomon, who happens to be an old friend of our hero, Langdon. He then tries to use Langdon to unlock the mysteries of the Masons, while all the while promising to release Solomon unharmed, if he gets what he wants.

The story also introduces a nasty CIA official, the Architect of the Capitol (also a 33rd degree Mason), Solomon’s sister (a brilliant scientist), and a few other characters who spend their time speeding back and forth across the District of Columbia, looking for the “lost word,” which will show the location of the ancient mysteries.

Like most of Brown’s books, the story is captivating, and keeps one guessing. At least at first.

About halfway through, it became pretty obvious that the bad guy is actually Solomon’s long-lost son Zachary, though Brown attempts to distract the reader until the “big reveal” later in the story. I kept thinking the Zachary angle was a subterfuge, but no, Mal’akh and Zach turned out to be the same person.

Putting aside the distractions of the Freemasonry PR (actual quote from the book: “For the record, ma’am, the entire Masonic philosophy is built on honesty and integrity. Masons are among the most trustworthy men you could ever hope to meet”), there are other problems with the story.

For one, a character named Warren Bellamy is referred to as an “elegant African American” about seven times in three pages. It just felt uncomfortable, like Brown was afraid to say “black man,” or even simply call him by his name. The only other character described by ethnicity was the CIA official, a “tiny Japanese woman” with bad skin, yellow teeth, gnarled hands, and a bad attitude.

There are other overused phrases in the book, as pointed out by a review in the New York Times. “Obelisk” is one of them. Brown uses the word several hundred times in the book, when he actually means “The Washington Monument.” But he says “obelisk,” because it’s supposed to be a surprise that the Monument is the end of the story.

And the ending was something of a let-down, especially compared to the first two books. In this one, the ancient mysteries turn out to be the Bible and other religious books. Solomon says they’re all written in code to tell man one thing: “Know ye not that ye are gods?”

One more thing: the entire reason the CIA is involved is because Mal’akh poses an alleged threat to national security. Bellamy is shown a video by the CIA official, which breaks his heart and totally convinces him to help the CIA. Later, Langdon is shown the same video, and he realizes that the threat is much larger than he imagined. But, when the reader is finally shown the video, it’s just some U.S. government people participating in a Masonic ritual.

Brown writes of Langdon as he watches the footage: “A soul-deep dread swelled within him... Langdon swallowed hard... Langdon felt ill as the video continued... In an instant, he had come to understand the source of Sato’s anxiety and concern...”

Basically, Langdon knows that if this video got out to the public, “the government would be thrown into upheaval... launching a Puritan witch-hunt all over again.” And Brown goes on to explain how the Masons are much better than they appear in the video; they’re actually the good guys, he says over and over again.

Really? Personally, I think Americans are so jaded with Washington scandals and sordid discoveries that we just laugh them off, or shake our heads sadly. Even if the video showed several prominent U.S. officials in an actual Satanic ritual, I doubt the government would come crashing down, as Brown seems to believe.

Lest I appear to be completely bashing this book, I’m not. There are certainly good points.

As always, Brown’s ability to keep the action moving while still informing the reader is apparent. His descriptions of scenes are precise and colorful.

And perhaps the best thing of all: he’s informative. Anyone reading a Brown novel will be filled with odd facts and glossed-over history that’s extremely interesting. And he intertwines this old stuff with a current thriller story, to make it seem relevant.

If nothing else, he’s encouraged thousands of readers to check his facts by going to Wikipedia. At least you’re learning something by reading this book. And at least you’re reading.


With the first two books, I worried that movie versions would let me down, and they did. With this book, I’m hoping that the movie version can fix a few things for me. Maybe it will.

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