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_Book Review: "Digital Fortress" (Dan Brown, 1998)_

Picking up this book was something of an after-thought for me. I needed one more book to make up the numbers for a special offer at the bookstore, and this was it. However, I've read it, and here is my review.

First things first, let me judge the book by its cover. However much of a cliché that is, I feel it's relevant here. I'm not usually one to take much notice of quotes from reviews printed on dust-jackets, but the first worrying sign for me was when I noticed that all the quotes on the cover of "Digital Fortress" were in fact singing the praises of one of the author's other books, "The Da Vinci Code". In fact, that book was mentioned so often on the cover, as well as the four pages of the book, which were just advertising for it, that I almost began to wonder whether there actually was a novel anywhere in there. It wasn't a good start. Publishers, a message for you: It's fine to tell us about the author's other works, but please don't push it down our throats.

Anyway, onto the story itself.

Let me start with the good points. Dan Brown has a great ability to describe people and places. The settings are described with a good eye for detail, and his main characters are strong and well written; they have strengths and weaknesses, and are quite believable.

Sadly, however, the situations his characters find themselves in are not, and this is where my review starts to go sour.

The story takes place in the present day, and throws the reader into the murky underworld of the secret American government agency, the NSA, and more specifically into the world of cryptography and code breaking.

The basic premise is that a rouge computer scientist has come up with a new type of encryption software that is unbreakable, even using the massive computing power at the NSA's disposal. And since the job at the agency of the main characters is to break encrypted messages, this is a problem for them.

The book is split fairly evenly between the agency's chief code breaker at the cryptography center, and her fiancé, who is running around Spain at the behest of her boss trying to find the key that will unlock the code.

This split is a slightly awkward one. The perspective of the story changes every couple of pages. Mostly it alternates between the two lead characters, but it also occasionally switches to the thoughts of one of the other minor characters, which is more disconcerting. It takes a bit of getting used to, and I'm not sure I like this style. But that said, it is by no means a major problem, and I will freely admit it does help to hurry the pace of the story along.

But the style is one thing. The really unforgivable problem with this book are the myriad holes in the plot. I'm a computer programmer by trade, and although I'm not a code breaker by any means, I am familiar with the basics of cryptology. I'm sorry to say that the basic premise of the unbreakable code, in the way it's described, is clearly not workable - he breaks practically all rules of cryptography, and invents new ones to compensate that simply don't ring true. Even worse, we're asked to believe that a group of the smartest cryptographers on the planet think that it's plausible.

What is clear here is that the author simply doesn't know the computer industry or cryptography at all. He's obviously done his research, and it sounds like he's spoken to people who do know about these things - there's a lot of stuff in the book that is right - but the blunders are huge, and so glaringly obvious that even with my limited knowledge of some of the concepts involved, I had difficulty getting past them. It's hard to take a book seriously when you know that the basic plot device is junk.

There are other non-technical plot holes too, like the assassin who reports back the names of all his victims, without any apparent way of knowing most of them. And the same assassin, who managed to take out every single one of his other victims within seconds, and is supposed to the the best of the best, ends up spending several chapters chasing his final target, firing off dozens of shots, and making a complete fool of himself. But these points I can live with (in fact, I'd even say they help give the story a bit of character) - for the most part, it was the technical blunders that got me down.

I'm also sorry to say that I'd worked out most of the plot twists long before they arrived. Some of them were quite clever, and the way the lose ends were tied up at the end was actually fairly neat in some respects, but most of them were fairly easy to see coming. And it won't be spoiling much to tell you that the ending is a cringe-inducingly happy and wholesome one, of the heros-live-happily-ever-after,-the-end type. You can see it coming all the way from the start of the book, but that doesn't make it any less painful when it finally arrives.

The book could have been a good read; it has lots of action and good characters. It is let down badly by its technical flaws. The tragedy is that that needn't have been so much of a problem, if only the plot hadn't been so heavily grounded in that technology.

"Digital Fortress" gets a thumbs down from this reviewer, amd I'm sorry to say that after this I probably won't be reading any more of Dan Brown's books - no matter how gushing the praises are on the dust-jacket.

"Digital Fortress" is available in most bookstores.
The publisher can be found online at

Spudley Strikes Again


The following comments are for "Digital Fortress"
by Spudley

Sounds like a perfectly boring book. How did you ever get through it?


( Posted by: Char [Member] On: October 11, 2004 )

Me, too
Me, too! Me, too! I know that I read this book and that I hated it. I cannot tell you one thing about the plot because I immediately erased it from my memory.

HOWEVER...Don't put Dan Brown in the "Do Not Read" category forever. Along with the Da Vinci Code, he also wrote "Angels & Demons", which was a great book and a prequel to Da Vinci Code. My husband and I have read both of those books and loved them.

Also, another of his books is Deception Point and it is not so bad. I guess that's not a glowing review, but I bought it at the airport because I needed something to read on the way to my sister-in-law's wedding. It was not a superior novel, but just an entertaining book for the flight.

This was an excellent review! Thanks for sharing!


( Posted by: Shel [Member] On: October 14, 2004 )

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