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No Fortress, This.
Digital Fortress - Dan Brown
Member Name: IainWear
Digital Fortress - Dan Brown
Advantages: Well paced
Disadvantages: Contains all of Brown's weaknesses
Dan Brown may not be the best writer around, but he does know how to find something exciting to write about. Sadly, this puts me in a difficult position, as I love a good story, even as I struggle to cope with poor writing. But having read and love-hated Brown's three Robert Langdon novels, I was intrigued as to what he has done outside that character.
This brought me to "Digital Fortress". The title is the name given to an electronic code that even the National Security Agency's amazing code-breaking computer cannot break and which, slightly embarrassingly, has been written by a former NSA programmer. There is a pass key available that can break the code, but unfortunately the programmer, Ensei Tankado, has just died suddenly and given away the clue to a complete stranger.
The NSA takes a two pronged attack to solve the mystery. They send David Becker to Spain to try and reclaim the ring. In the meantime, Susan Fletcher is called into the NSA's Cryptology department to try and solve the problem internally. However, it seems that the code is not just a code, but is also a virus set to destroy the NSA's ability to monitor the world's E-Mail.
Despite the book pre-dating Brown's creation of Robert Langdon, many of the aspects of his later novels appear here. Tankado has set clues that the NSA has to break in order to kill his virus and save the NSA's ability to crack codes. There is also the chasing around a city searching for something, although in this case, the two storylines involve separate characters, as Becker tries to find the various people that, improbably, Tankado's ring has been passed onto.
As usual, Brown writes to a very good pace, with the switching between the storylines working well at keeping the pace high. He also frequently writes in short chapters, similar to the style employed by James Paterson, which helps keep the pages turning over fairly quickly and also encourages the reader to move on for one more chapter before putting the book down. That said, writing a decent, well-paced story has never been Brown's weak point. However, all of his weak points, as well as his stronger ones, are apparent in this novel.
Brown's writing style is fluid and very simple. He rarely gets bogged down in too much technical language, even when talking about technical concepts. This also helps with the pacing, but sometimes the way he has characters explain things does come across as being a little patronising to me, but may not seem to those with no knowledge of the subject. But it seems that he insists on explaining even simple concepts and solutions to clues in this way, as if he's trying to show off the knowledge he has.
As with his Robert Langdon novels, it is these solutions to the clues that were the book's major weakness for me. The characters here are supposed to be the smartest code breakers that the NSA has, but they seem horribly inept when it comes to solving codes. There are a couple of clues so obvious that you almost want to shout the answer to the characters as they miss what seems to have been right in front of them for ages.
Brown's other failing is that the characters are dreadfully weak. The romantic sub-plot between Becker and Fletcher is sweet enough and helps derive some motivation, but this only becomes apparent later on and I'd largely stopped caring by that point. It seems that Fletcher was only written as a woman to give Commander Strathmore some form of motivation, but their relationship is also never explored enough for the reader to become immersed in it deeply enough to be all that bothered about what happens to him.
Essentially, "Digital Fortress" turned out to be all I had expected from Dan Brown; well paced but not well written and occasionally exciting without ever being all that enticing. A quick look on Amazon tells its own story, with more than 1000 copies of the book available for a penny plus postage, with even the postage costs making it a waste of money. Fortunately, should you need something to light a fire with, or something which is so bad it will make impending dental surgery or a turbulence filled flight seem comparatively good, Dan brown is the most frequently donated author to charity shops, so you can pick a copy up for a few pence. But, believe me, you'll find yourself wishing you hadn't.
Summary: Brown's novel that pre-dates Robert Langdon, but doesn't pre-date his poor writing