As I mentioned in the other reviews, I am in the process of re-reading all of Dan
Brown's fiction, six books in all. I read them before I created this site, so I wanted to refresh my memory. And they are well worth a second read.
As with Digital Fortress, this was better the second time around. This is Brown's second
novel, published in 2000. It is also the first of the Robert Langdon thrillers. He is played by Tom Hanks in the movies, and while Hanks is his usually
excellent self, the movies don't follow the book. Brown knew what he was doing. Read the book instead.
Like Michael Crichton, Brown's novels are a mix of fact and fiction. He obviously puts a great deal of effort into researching his subject matter, and in this one it is the Brotherhood of the Illuminati, the Vatican and Rome, CERN and antimatter. Huh? you say. What can possibly be the connection? Ah, you shall find out.
And here I must make another point. Though Brown claims at the front of the book that his information on the Illuminati is factual, much of it is not. There is an article called Lies, Damned Lies and Dan Brown (eeek!) that disputes his facts. At this time, I really am not going to do further research on these facts Brown claims are true. I am writing about the material in the book, and you can check them out, if you wish.
Although Crichton' novels also contain lots of facts, he was better at weaving them into the story line so as not to be obtrusive. Brown is not quite as gifted in that area, and that's the one point of annoyance I encounter in his books, especially the Langdon thrillers. It somewhat breaks the spell when the characters stop to discuss historical trivia while they are on a life or death quest. But that won't keep me from reading his books. They are fascinating and contain puzzles. This one's puzzle is the clues the Illuminati created throughout Rome to enable new "Illuminated Ones" to join the Brotherhood, (which may or may not be fictional). They had to be kept secret, because the Church persecuted scientists and members of the Brotherhood. Yet they operated right under the nose of the Vatican. That part probably is true. Here is a synopsis of the plot, then I will share some of the trivia and more about the factual subject matter.
Langdon is a Harvard professor specializing in religious iconology. He gets a call at the wee hours of the morning from someone introducing himself as Maximilian Kohler, a discrete particle physicist. He asks if this is Robert Langdon, the religious symbology expert. Langdon doesn't take him seriously until a little later when he faxes him a photo of a dead man with the word Illuminati branded onto his chest. It is an ambigram of the word Illuminati, in other words, it can be read the same right side up or upside down. (These are fictional, created by Brown's friend John Langdon.) Langdon is immediately aware this man isn't fooling. He wants to know how he got his phone number. "Over the internet," the man replies. Langdon makes a remark about them knowing a lot about the Web, because he knows his contact number isn't on his site. The man fires back: "We should. We invented it."
Of course, the man is from CERN, (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), which in fact did invent the Worldwide Web. So a plane is sent for Langdon, and he is told he is going to Geneva, and the flight will take an hour. He replies that he has relatives in that part of New York.
No, Geneva, Switzerland.
It is a very fast plane.
They land safely and the pilot is stunned that Maximilian himself meets Langdon. He is a snarly and cold sort of person, in a wheelchair from a childhood illness that left him with breathing and other complications along with a foul temper. He is also the director of CERN. He takes Langdon to Leonardo Vetra's room, the murdered man, where he has been chilling the body to preserve it. He has not called the police and is awaiting the arrival of Vetra's adopted daughter, Vittoria.
In the freezing cold room, Kohler makes Langdon tell him all he knows about the Illuminati, so we get an interesting history, but again, if you're really interested I would check out his facts. Vittoria arrives, and she tells them of the work they were doing, which was top secret and under extreme security. Kohler won't let her see the body, but she takes him to their lab. Her father, actually a priest, had been working on merging science and religion, and was proving that Genesis was true—that matter can be created from nothing. Compressed energy. The Big Bang. In the process, they also created antimatter, and that is the security issue. She designed canisters in which to store the particles, kept under constant charge by special batteries. If the antimatter and matter touch, they annihilate. The particles, of course are miniscule. She gives them a demonstration and tells Langdon to shield his eyes. He can't imagine that a speck would give off that much light.
He was wrong. He is temporarily blinded.
But Kohler wants to know what is missing from the lab, because Vittoria's father's killer broke in and stole something. What she doesn't know is that one of his eyeballs was stolen because the security is set up as a retina scan. Then she admits there is another lab in HAZ-MAT. Now Kohler is worried. It is a particle the size of a BB. This one is the equivalent of 1,000 metric tons of TNT. When they arrive at the lower-level lab, Vittoria sees the bloody eyeball, and knows now what has happened.
And they soon find where it has gone. It is in the Vatican, where the Pope has just died, and the Conclave of Cardinals is to begin. The battery lasts 24 hour before detonation. A particle that size would destroy a half-mile radius. And what is even worse, the four cardinals who are believed to be the preferred ones to be elected Pope have disappeared. The Hassassin has informed them that the priests have been kidnapped, and each will die, one on the hour beginning at 8 PM. At midnight, the antimatter will explode, blowing up the Vatican and everything in a half mile radius. In addition each priest will die at a church, those along the Path of the illuminati, each in a unique way, concerning Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. And each will be branded with one of those words. In addition, there is a traitor within the Vatican, going by the name Janus, who has hired the Hassassin and orchestrated the atrocities about to take place.
Fact: The Catholic Church did capture and brand members of the Illuminati.
Langdon, Vittoria, and the Vatican Swiss Guard are now in the race to find the killer.
That is the basic plot of the story. Here is some trivia, and even a funny comment, by Langdon, of course.
The Big Bang Theory was first proposed by a Catholic monk named Georges Lemaïtre in 1927. Edwin Hubble didn't publish until 1929.
There is quite a bit of information about CERN here, too, including the Large Hadron Collider. I think most people reading this book would know about CERN now, especially since the discovery of the "God Particle" (Higgs boson), or rather the confirmation of its existence, in 2012. But in 2000, less people were probably aware of this rather controversial facility.
There is also lots of information about the Vatican, such as the fact that over 60,000 priceless works of art are housed there in 1,407 rooms.
And here's a funny quote by Langdon:
The Great Castration, Langdon thought.
It was one of the most horrific tragedies in Renaissance art. In 1857, Pope Pius IX decided that the accurate representation of the male form might incite lust inside the Vatican. So he got a chisel and mallet and hacked off the genitalia of every single male statue inside Vatican City. He defaced works by Michelangelo, Bramante, and Bernini. Plaster fig leaves were used to patch the damage. Hundreds of sculptures had been emasculated. Langdon had often wondered if there was a huge crate of stone penises someplace.
And to end this, a very serious quote by Vittoria, as she rebukes the camerlengo's speech about the Church vs. Science.
"Doubt is your last shred of control. It is doubt that brings souls to you. Our need to know that life has meaning. Man's insecurity and need for an enlightened soul assuring him everything is part of a master plan. But the church is not the only enlightened soul on the planet! We all seek God in different ways. What are you afraid of? That God will show himself somewhere other than inside these walls? That people will find him in their own lives and leave your antiquated rituals behind? . . ."
This and all Dan Brown's novels are highly recommended reading.
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