I picked this up not because I particularly wanted to read this book (thrillers aren’t usually my thing), but because I got in trouble in high school for looking at this in the library because “it’s heretical” and I was in the mood for a little heresy.
I want to preface this by saying I do not hate this book. A lot of this review is going to sound critical, but this book is a perfectly acceptable reading experience.
That said, this whole book has the feeling of being written to be a bestseller – like those big-budget action movies that are more about cool stunts and firey explosions than plot and characters. This book is focused much more on the fact that there is a Big Secret, this secret is shocking and titillating, and the protagonists have to solve riddles, visit historical sites, and dodge antagonists to find it. Everything else is incidental.
The two protagonists – Robert and Sophie – are basic stock characters. Robert is a middle-aged bachelor professor whose academic expertise is in something relevant to the riddles. Sophie is beautiful and sexy and also has some knowledge necessary to solve the riddles but she needs to be taught the details by the more knowledgeable Robert. Of course there’s romantic tension between the two, which is absolutely bizarre because at the beginning of the book Robert takes a minute to miss a woman who I assume was Sophie’s counterpart from the first Robert Langdon book, but then she is entirely forgotten in favor of the smart (but not as smart as Robert) and sexy Sophie.
If you think about it too hard, the plot is very contrived. Yes, it’s supposed to be difficult to get at the Big Secret in order to keep it safe, but beneath of all the Dangerous To The Church and We Are In Danger and other adult trappings put over it, it’s basically one of those scavenger hunts you give to kids with riddles to solve to take them to a location and get a new riddle until they find their birthday present at the end. It’s not even subtle – the book draws the parallel explicitly. It wasn’t boring to read, but looking back a few days after reading you realize there’s no real substance to it.
The antagonists were really underutilized in this story. Religious fanaticism is a fascinating force and could have thrown an interesting, unpredictable element into the plot. But there was only one actual religious fanatic among the ranks of the antagonists, and he was unquestionably and undeviatingly obedient to to the larger forces, who were motivated by comparatively boring stuff like money and power. It kept him from introducing a chaotic element into the story which I would have loved to see. Religious fanatics could have made fantastic opponents in this book but Dan went for the boring stuff instead.
And after all that, I really don’t think revealing the Big Secret would be as damaging to the church as everybody in this book seems to think. Maybe it’s different for Catholics, but grew up among Protestants who regularly and repeatedly ignore, explain away, or outright deny facts that they don’t like. (I can guarantee you’ve seen this in action with all the covid denialism in the news right now.) Archaeologists could literally exhume Jesus’s body with signed agreements between Paul and Peter that Jesus never rose from the dead and they were gonna make up a religion around him, and most Christians would call it fake and somebody would write a bestselling book pretending to be an archaeologist and “disproving” the find. The contents of The Da Vinci Code‘s Big Secret are nowhere near enough to shake the faith of almost every Christian I know.
The amateur religious scholar in me also wants to point out that the noncanonical gospel quotes used in support of the Big Secret’s realism were either mistranslated to the point of paraphrase (Gospel of Philip) or Dan filled in gaps in the existing manuscripts with his own words to fit the idea (Gospel of Mary). And he completely made up translations and origins of words to make the Big Secret sound more plausible. Do not read this book to learn anything about the actual religious history or archaeology behind the ideas because almost everything in this book is wrong.
I can absolutely see why this became a bestseller. The Big Secret is titillating and sacrilegious and given just enough plausibility to seem possible in the real world, and the characters work just fine as vehicles to steer the reader through a large-scale scavenger hunt with danger and action and religious symbolism leading to big conspiracies and secrets. It’s a fairly enjoyable book. But it lacks any real substance. It has nothing to give it depth or meaning, very little to give it interest beyond the sacrilegious nature of the Big Secret, and nothing to make it worth rereading. It’s the kind of book that one would describe as “a diversion” or “highly marketable” – the kind of thing that will sell, and is perfectly readable as a bit of fluff, but lacks anything worth sinking your teeth into.
Graphic: Blood, Death, Gore, Murder, Self harm, Kidnapping, and Gun violence
Moderate: Death of parent and Child death
Minor: Suicide, Car accident, and Ableism