By Dan Brown
Paperback, 430 pages
1998, St. Martin’s
Susan Fletcher works for the NSA, developing and breaking codes to prevent terrorism and criminal acts against the U.S. When her anniversary weekend with her fiancé, David, is canceled due to an emergency call he receives, Susan is disappointed – at least, until she gets called into work too. When she arrives, she finds the NSA’s master computer stuck on a code it’s been unable to break for over 13 hours, something everyone thought impossible. Susan soon learns David is caught up in her company’s efforts to do damage control and was sent to Spain to retrieve something critically important. As Susan struggles against the clock to figure out what’s going on, she soon realizes nothing is what it seems and no one can be trusted.
My blurb feels cheesy, but I’m going to leave it that way because this book was cheesy. It’s the literary equivalent of an action movie and perhaps some popcorn to munch while reading would have helped.
I don’t mean to sound harsh (ok, but also I don’t mean to not sound harsh), but I’m not a diehard Dan Brown fan. I do, however, enjoy his books because they’re fast, exciting reads with a lot of action and conspiracies or puzzles to figure out. When I need a quick read (in terms of pace and time it takes me to read one), Brown has what I’m looking for. That being said, had Sweetbeeps not finished this recently and recommend it, when it came up on my TBR Tear Down list, I would have immediately marked it as unread and moved on.
Digital Fortress, while set before cell phones (there are pagers, heehee) and Wi-Fi and much of the tech we know today (just so you know, I do recall dial-up internet, AOL chatrooms and clunky cellphones that could only make calls), is not jarringly out of date. As it focuses mainly on the government’s capabilities to read emails and listen to calls made by the general public (hmm…) and the main focus is decryption, it feels very relevant. I’m not big on cryptology so I didn’t find those segments particularly interesting, but if you enjoy that sort of thing, I think there’s plenty in the book to keep you guessing. The latter portion of the book is actually dedicated to cracking a code and I assume it’s possible for someone to attempt it without the help of the characters if they desired (I didn’t.)
There’s also some espionage going on – while David hunts through Madrid for a ring, there’s someone hot on his heels. David has rather a lot of luck in some far-fetched situations, but I was also raving about what a friggen idiot he was often enough for his efforts to seem realistic. Most of the action scenes in the book center around David and, like many movies, they were slightly unbelievable but relatively fun to imagine.
In general, the characters fell flat for me. David is a “good guy” and Susan is a “smart woman” but I didn’t particularly like them – I didn’t dislike them either. Though, I do think that for all Susan’s smarts, she ends up helpless in most situations and I wish she’d had a bit more autonomy. Perhaps that’s just a product of when it was written, or maybe that’s how Brown usually writes his ladies – it’s been too long since I read Angels & Demons or the Da Vinci Code for me too remember. I wouldn’t classify it as problematic or anything, just annoying.
Another thing that irked me was Brown’s character descriptions. For those of you who may think I’m overly harsh when I constantly criticize YA for giving me a full (and typically awkward and unnatural) physical rundown of the heroes and heroines, let me say I realize other genres do it too. Brown is guilty of giving full-fledged character descriptions in ways that took me right out of the story – and for details that I consider useless. This is obviously a personal preference, but I don’t usually need to know the hair and eye color of a character unless it’s particularly unusual (and no, sapphire blue eyes and fiery red locks isn’t what I mean) or it plays into the story somehow. I felt like Brown had to make sure we knew that David and Susan were fit and good looking and it drove me nuts.
Here’s Susan (from the point of a view of a random guard whose perspective we never get again and doesn’t play into the story in any way – he’s straight-up ogling her as she walks by): “He noticed that her strong hazel eyes seemed distant today, but her cheeks had a flushed freshness, and her shoulder-length, auburn hair looked newly blown dry. Tailing her was the faint scent of Johnson’s Baby Powder. His eyes fell the length of her slender torso – to her white blouse with the bra barely visible beneath, to her knee-length khaki skirt, and finally to her legs…Susan Fletcher’s legs. Hard to imagine they support a 170 IQ, he mused to himself.”
And later, from David’s perspective: “If Susan’s body had been lanky and awkward as a teenager, it sure wasn’t now. Somewhere along the way, she had developed a willowy grace – slender and tall with full, firm breasts and a perfectly flat abdomen. David often joked that she was the first swimsuit model he’d ever met with a doctorate in applied mathematics and number theory.”
Actually, the more I think of it, the more these descriptions bother me (omg, am I becoming woke?) Susan is really the only female of note in the book (aside from one other who is viewed as a grudge-bearing harpy until the end) and she’s only viewed through the eyes of the men around her. (Side note: There’s an especially uncomfortable bit where her father-figure boss has some incredibly creepy thoughts about her, but I don’t even feel like going into all that.) I notice that Brown does throw in a bit about how smart she is at the end of each so we don’t forget to value her brains. But really, are her firm breasts in any way pertinent to the story?! (Sweetbeeps laughingly said yes when I exclaimed this out loud after reading the above quote.) Model body aside, even if Brown felt it was absolutely necessary to give us all Susan’s physical stats, did we need them all at once? Could her hair have been mentioned at a different time than her eyes and legs? She might as well have stood in front of a mirror and described herself (a trait my much younger self was guilty of doing in every story she wrote.)
Not that Susan isn’t guilty of ogling David; and while it’s no less annoying, it is less sexualized: “Becker was dark – a rugged, youthful thirty-five with sharp green eyes and a wit to match. His strong jaw and taut features reminded Susan of carved marble. Over six feet tall, Becker moved across a squash court faster than any of his colleagues could comprehend. After soundly beating his opponent, he would cool off by dousing his head in a drinking fountain and soaking his tuft of thick, black hair.”
At least she didn’t talk about the size of his bulge or his tight ass. She does lose points for the marble carving cliché though.
Then we have one of the side characters, as viewed by the narrator, and boy do they want to make sure we know he’s ugly: “Jabba resembled a giant tadpole. Like the cinematic creature for whom he was nicknamed, the man was a hairless spheroid.”
Are you serious!? I feel like I’m literally supposed to picture Jabba the Hut, but on two legs and covered in flesh, with a human face. Cut the crap, Dan Brown.
Fortunately, stupid descriptions like these are few and far between. Despite my hang-ups, the plot was fast-paced and kept me reading. I finished the book in two days and while my overall feelings are pretty meh, I think this would be a good beach or vacation read. I’m not sure I’ll pick up another Dan Brown book in the future though.