Origin by Dan Brown

If there’s one thing I really enjoy, it’s a page-turner of a book and, Dan Brown’s latest Robert Langdon mystery, Origin, is certainly that. Park your bottom, pour a coffee, wine or beverage of choice, put on the lamp, and begin…

Once again, the quiet, Mickey-Mouse watch-wearing Professor of Symbology, Robert Langdon (and now I always picture the wonderful Tom Hanks), is in the wrong place at the right time – the right time to thrust him into the middle of a murder investigation with potentially catastrophic, future-of-humanity-is-at-stake, life-changing consequences.

Attending the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to hear a former student of his, Edmond Kirsch, deliver a speech he claims “will change the face of science forever”, by delivering the answers to two fundamental questions that have perplexed scientists, religious minds and philosophers for centuries, what Langdon doesn’t expect is the murder and mayhem that unfolds. Though, really, on past experiences (I’m thinking Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol and Inferno) maybe he should.

After all, Edmond, a computer and high-tech genius who has made dazzling and accurate predictions for over twenty years that have gained him a global cult following, is no stranger to controversy. Not afraid to poke a religious hornet’s nest, the book opens with Edmond baiting three religious leaders by allowing them a preview of what he intends to release. For such a smart man, this seems like a dumb move as there are those among the faithful who will do anything to ensure his discovery is never revealed.

When the presentation to the world goes horribly wrong, it becomes a race against time as Professor Langdon (and his trusty watch), a beautiful female side-kick (is there any other kind?) and a very sophisticated piece of technology, work to ensure Edmond’s discovery is made public. As much as the good Professor and his helpers seek to do what they believe is right, there are those working against them who believe the same thing and will stop at nothing to ensure they fail, even if it means more bloodshed.

In the meantime, all eyes are turned to Spain – as conspiracy theories and theorists, a growing media pack, denizens of the internet and a digital and real audience simultaneously commentate upon what is happening.

Gaudi’s, Sagrada Familia

There’s no doubt, Brown has perfected the art of making sure his reader is hooked. Fast-paced, filled with didactic speeches (that are nevertheless interesting and entertaining), that reveal religion and science to be both juxtaposed and yet, not as polemically situated as one might think, Langdon’s mission is, indeed, an ideological game-changer… or is it? Tapping into the zeitgeist, Brown ensures that the questions tormenting many in the world at present such as the role of religion and faith in a technologically-savvy, rational world that constantly seeks proof and wonders can these two oppositional ways of thinking ever find common ground, are asked. Required to suspend your disbelief (which is fine), there are some strange plot points that frustrate rather than illuminate, and so impact upon the overall believability, even within this genre, of the sometimes OTT actions and consequences. Mind you, the glorious descriptions of Antoni Gaudi’s works does go someway to compensating.

As is often the case, the journey to uncover answers is often more exciting and revealing than the destination. Still, there is much to enjoy about a book that excites the mind and the mind’s eye, turns an academic into, if not a super-hero, then certainly a hero and, it seems, religious authorities into villains while concurrently overturning a great many expectations. There’s also a satisfying twist that many might see coming, but that doesn’t reduce the impact.

Overall, another fun, well-paced, Robert Langdon adventure, replete with groans, dad-jokes, and some fabulous facts. I hope he takes us on a few more.

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Book Review: Danger to Elizabeth by Alison Plowden

Danger to Elizabeth is the second volume in Alison Plowden’s engrossing quartet about Elizabeth the First’s life and times. In this book, Danger, she examines the threats that Elizabeth personally faced as well as those that beset the kingdom during her reign, all of which arose from the religious schism that divided England, particularly in the years before the defeat of the Spanish Aramda in 1588.

Danger to ElizabethWhile the main focus of the book is the principal plots around which the menace to Elizabeth’s person coalesced, such as the Ridolfi, Throgmorton and Babington ones and the influx of Jesuits and Catholics into England determined to succour recusants and rescue Protestant souls, it also takes into account the Papal Bulls issued from Rome that fundamentally gave permission for English Catholics to not only renounce Elizabeth as their monarch, but do harm upon her person. While describing these various perils and their outcomes, it also explores Elizabeth the queen and woman.

After reading Alison Weir’s historical novel, The Marriage Game (and enjoying it very much, even if I didn’t like the portrait it painted of Elizabeth), it was refreshing to read the queen’s tergiversations and choices around marriage and policy (especially with Mary, Queen of Scots), in the terms Plowden describes them. On page 37, she writes:

“Elizabeth was very well aware of her value in the international marriage market and zestfully exploited the advantages attached to being the most eligible spinster in Europe, turning the apparent disability of her sex into a diplomatic weapon which for the next twenty years she was to wield with deliberate, ruthless feminine guile.”

There is no doubt this powerful and intelligent queen, whom Sir Francis Walsingham, her Secretary of State from 1573 until his death in 1590, once described as the “best catch in the parish”, understood her value and, despite some evidence and arguments to the contrary, knew her mind – even when it appeared she did not.

Plowden charts the various threats to Elizabeth posed by the Catholic Church, the Catholic countries that surround England and their advances into the Low Countries, the Enterprise of conversion (or “harvesting”) of English souls, all conducted with the blessing of the “Bishop of Rome” and which was led by William Allen and his followers such as Edmund Campion and Robert Parsons. Written in wonderful, colourful and detailed prose that makes what can sometimes be dense detail easy to absorb, this book is a great read. There were times when it felt like I was reading a picaresque novel, so fast and exciting was the action. I also found, after devouring many, many books on these threats, plots and their consequences, that Plowden’s book fills in many gaps the others either skimmed over or did not bother to elucidate. Having said that, I did wonder if I hadn’t read so many other books on this era, would I have gleaned as much as I did from Plowden’s book. I also wonder if some knowledge of events and personages helped me draw from this book what I needed, meaning I’m not persuaded it would be a good book for beginners wanting to learn about the era and the dangers Elizabeth and her realm faced.

That said, it is the second volume in a four-book series, a series I will now look forward to completing very much.

Highly recommended for lovers of history and Elizabethan politics in particular.

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