This is my book review of ORIGIN, by Dan Brown. My reviews are brief (about five minutes’ reading time) and to the point, contain no spoilers of substance, and include a rating out of five at the end, with a note on my rating system.
I’ve read all of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books, of which this is the fifth (I’ve also read DIGITAL FORTRESS and DECEPTION POINT, which are much the same, but don’t feature Langdon). I’ll begin by noting that if you’ve also read Brown’s previous books in the series, you’ll recall that a significant event occurs at the end of the previous book, INFERNO, which would have substantial impact on Langdon’s world. ORIGIN makes no mention of it at all, as I largely expected. The movie version of INFERNO changed the ending, incidentally, to remove the significant event. In any case, this is (as usual) a fully standalone tale, with no impact or characters carried over from previous stories.
It’s fair to say that Langdon has remarkably little to do in this book, at least in the first half, but it doesn’t seem to matter because the plot charges along anyway. Almost anyone could be substituted for Langdon here. That’s not a complaint; just an observation. Fans of the genre, and Brown’s specific work, will still lap it up — as I did.
A few words about style. ORIGIN is the ultimate expression of Brown’s affinity for brief chapters, because there are only a handful (literally, I think) of scene breaks in the entire book: scenes are promoted to chapters here. Few chapters are more than six to eight pages, and are commonly only one to three. You get used to it quickly. I wonder if it was to pad the page-count a bit, though, which is about 450 in UK hardback.
I was surprised to see that ORIGIN still needs a polishing edit. There’s at least one typo which constitutes a minor logical error, and various small awkwardnesses of style, especially repeated phrases within close proximity. There’s a chapter (i.e. a few pages; a scene) early on which feels like it was written or rewritten late in the editing process, and hasn’t seen the same level of care as the rest. It jumps right out; I’ll leave you to find it. There are also the tell-tale signs of scene-reordering without another due editing pass, such as successive chapters beginning in the same way (two sequential chapters begin by talking about bridges; entirely different ones, with no bearing on the story at all). There’s also a minor error of procedural likelihood near the end. None of these detracted from my enjoyment, but I noticed them and I was surprised. It’s fine, but it’s not quite up to the editing standard of a book from a world-famous author with big-time publishers. I don’t expect any changes in future editions, though, the typo notwithstanding.
Now, the story. I felt there were slightly too many threads of the narrative to be juggled in the latter half; it could have been simplified a bit, to eliminate some supporting characters who have virtually nothing to do, but were clearly dear to the author. It happens. It’s not a big deal.
Regarding the various reveals: there are essentially four (or five, if you split the book’s primary question into the two halves that the story unfailingly does). The primary question is used to perfectly and relentlessly taunt the reader along the way, and really pulls you through the story. Ultimately, the resolution feels like it doesn’t quite deliver on its dramatic promise, but it’s intellectually satisfying — if a bit over-egged during the opening 90% of the book. The first half of the question is answered more completely than the second. Both prompt further thought once you’ve finished, probably more so than any of the other Langdon books.
Of the remaining three reveals, one was entirely tangential and inconsequential to the story, completely untelegraphed, happens around the 98% mark, and left me with a “Huh. Well… that’s nice, I suppose.” reaction. It felt like a box-ticking exercise in terms of liberal values, and I wonder if it was perhaps shoehorned-in quite late in the writing process. It doesn’t detract from the story at all; it just seemed like an unnecessary additional poke at certain conservative values. I think that in this book, Brown sees himself less as Langdon, and more as the other primary male character whose name you’ll hear every couple of pages.
The remaining two reveals are the classic “Who is the mysterious mastermind?” type, and I’ll be honest: I’m not the right person to assess how well they were done. I write thrillers, and I know the story beats and plot structures. When you write fiction yourself, you read it differently. You read it as, say, a scenic artist probably watches TV shows, or how a director watches movies. You can feel the bones of the thing, and notice the art and artifice even when all you want is the story.
I knew exactly who was behind it all from within a couple of scenes of their first proper introduction in the story, purely because of the structure of the setup. Maybe you will, too, and maybe you won’t — but the journey is the thing, and Brown keeps that particular secret until literally the dying pages of the whole book. I still very much enjoyed waiting to have my conclusion confirmed. Langdon’s reaction to it is done very well, and in fairness there was no particular way for him to have made the deduction earlier.
If you’re a Dan Brown fan, or like chase/mystery thrillers, you’ll enjoy ORIGIN. I wasn’t hugely keen on THE LOST SYMBOL, but I felt that INFERNO was a return to form. ORIGIN has the same feel, though it diverges from the formula in several ways that ultimately don’t detract from the story. It’s as Brownian as it can be without technically following the template of ancient riddles and codes, of which there are none; this is a story set firmly in the modern world. The reader’s experience is nonetheless the same, which is exactly what I was looking for.
ORIGIN shows that, even in the absence of much of the paraphernalia of ANGELS AND DEMONS and THE DA VINCI CODE, Robert Langdon can still get himself into an enjoyable bit of trouble.
Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
About my rating system: I reject the idea that “five stars means perfect”. Novels are meant to entertain, and take you away from the real world for a while. I start with five stars, and I subtract for anything that damages my immersion or enjoyment — such as overt, recurring stylistic or linguistic problems, plot weaknesses and pacing problems, and so on. If I can honestly say that I enjoyed reading a book, and have no major reservations about recommending it, I’ll give it five out of five. Correspondingly, if I subtract stars, I’ll properly explain why. Simple.