WHO KNOWS the secret of dying? According to Dan Brown, the Freemasons do, but they’re not exactly willing to share it.

The popular writer follows up his 2003 best seller The Da Vinci Code with another puzzle for protagonist Robert Langdon to break. This time, the Harvard symbologist’s quest takes him all over Washington D.C., in a race against time to keep yet another grave revelation from being exposed to the world.

In The Lost Symbol, Langdon is summoned to give a lecture at the Capitol building by his teacher, Peter Solomon, a well-known Mason. However, before Langdon meets up with his friend and mentor, a severed hand in the Capitol Rotunda—Peter Solomon’s—points him to his latest adventure. The lecture is a hoax, and the hand is a clue to solving the crime.

Enter a brooding fanatic called Mal’akh, whose name means “angel” in Hebrew, a muscle-bound, tattooed eunuch. Mal’akh wants the Masonic Pyramid, which, according to legend, gives its bearer the secret of death and transformation. To do this, Mal’akh kidnaps Solomon that Langdon would give him the key to the secret.

With Peter’s life in peril, and the Brotherhood’s secrets compromised, Langdon teams up with Peter’s younger sister Katherine, a scientist of noetics, the study of human intuition and its connection with divinity, a form of gnosticism. Together, the two embark on a claustrophobic half-day mission that includes a crash course in Freemason history, American politics, the tourist destinations in Washington D.C., and noetic science. All of these are in The Lost Symbol; with the usual Dan Brown plot wrenches—cliffhangers, “ancient” secrets hidden in plain sight, a secret society (or here, a society with a lot of secrets) and people who are not what they seem.

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Clocking in at 509 pages, The Lost Symbol is a laborious read. It has neither the tight storytelling of Angels & Demons nor the scandalous insinuations in The Da Vinci Code. It has an implausible beginning—an intelligent man is tricked into getting involved in a power play because someone did some name-dropping. Langdon also had to have a lot of historical facts explained to him. For a symbologist and expert on the holy gospel and Gnosticism, it’s quite surprising Langdon doesn’t know the Masons.

The book also sounds like a pamphlet at times—entire passages sound like quotes from press releases. “I humbly submit,” Bellamy said, “[…] a modest stone whose golden capstone reaches high enough to be touched by God. High enough that an enlightened man can reach down and touch it.” The book reads like a Hollywood blockbuster screenplay, which is probably what Brown had in mind.

The transitions between plot points are also cumbersome. The Lost Symbol is saturated with so many cliffhangers that Brown fails to adequately explain the “secret” in the story. Indeed, there is so much tension in the middle of the book, that with half a thousand pages later and no satisfying resolution, the reader is left feeling cheated. Brown instead preaches to the reader about a repackaged philosophy in life, about everyone being “a god within.”

However, the book is not without positive points. Brown trains the spotlight on a city that receives much attention for its politics, but not for its art or architecture. Also, despite the thinness of the plot and some flaws in characterization, the book makes the reader want to plod on to know what the big secret really is. After all, no one who opens a Dan Brown book expects a serious historical discourse, despite his note up front that all of the artwork and institutions in his books are real. So he builds up on the suspense, and then takes the readers on a wild goose chase. There are the obligatory twists, and mildly intriguing puzzles: the reader is led to believe that things will only get better. But quite suddenly, everything’s over.

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