Inferno, Dan Brown’s “highest-stakes novel to date” (don’t you just love blurbs?), came out a couple of days ago. I’ll admit it. I used to be a Dan Brown fan. I demolished Angels and Demons when I first discovered it. It’s a cliche, but I really couldn’t put it down. Once I did, I immediately went out and bought the Da Vinci code, Digital Fortress and Deception Point. I loved them too. Despite a sometimes questionable grasp of history, geography, religious scholarship, science, and technology, they are unquestionably entertaining reads. But a couple of years ago Dan Brown came out with The Lost Symbol. A godawful book that has soured my opinion of Brown. Considering how bad The Lost Symbol was, I was thinking of giving this one a miss entirely. However, and unfortunately, my curiosity got the better of me yet. I say unfortunately because just like The Lost Symbol, I majorly regret the waste of my time and money. Inferno confirms what many of us suspected after The Lost Symbol debacle; Brown has utterly lost the Indiana Jones-esque magic he captured in Angels and Demons and the Da Vinci Code.
As you might expect, Inferno is set against the backdrop of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Symbolist Robert Langdon must follow a stream of Dante related clues through Florence and Venice, all the while fighting amnesia and being chased by soldiers and assassins. But rather than sadistic monks or super-secret societies, this time it is a mad scientist who leads Symbolist Robert Langdon on his merry quest. This particular mad scientist has a Dante fixation, a Thomas Malthus fixation, and obviously never learned from all the cartoon villains who got busted by leaving behind elaborate clues. The stakes are also higher. Langdon isn’t saving the Vatican from the illuminati or the descendant of Jesus from radical Christians, he is saving the world from a biologist who wants to kill off humans to stave off overpopulation.
First off let me just say that the whole save the world shtick really ruined the whole thing for me. It is one thing for a symbolist to be interpreting clues left behind by the Priory of Scion or the Illuminati, overcoming foes that for centuries have actually existed in secret, expressing themselves through symbols. But the entire time I read this book I could not stop questioning what a symbolist was doing saving the world, and what a committed, genius scientist was doing leaving a Dante laden trail of bread crumbs. Who was he leaving the clues for? Why was he leaving the clues? What person hell bent on changing the world leaves any room for their plan to be thwarted? The whole episode comes off more 1990’s James Bond or Joel Schumacher’s Batman than it does Ian Fleming’s James Bond or Frank Miller’s Batman.
Secondly, the characters in this story leave a lot to be desired. Robert Langdon is now well and truly down pat, and some of the main antagonists give him a run for his money, but the rest really are terrible. For example, one of the most visible antagonists, The Provost, spends the novel lurking in his lair, a huge grey yacht with a whole bunch of futuristic equipment. We are meant to take him as a serious and dangerous underworld figure, but what underworld figure has personal rules against finding out anything about their clients, and hires mercenaries that can’t capture an aging and wounded professor? Really all that separates him from being Dr. Evil is that his ship doesn’t have his face on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was in one of the earlier drafts.
But it isn’t just the content of this book that is a real let down. I normally enjoy Brown’s unpretentious style of writing. Brown generally jams a lot of information into his books but he still manages to keep the pace going. Unlike the Michael Crichton’s of the world, Brown usually struck a good balance of action and explanation. But Inferno is quite the opposite. We get never ending lectures about Dante, about the Divine Comedy, about Florence and Venice. The exposition is so thick and so lengthy, and often adds absolutely nothing to the story, it just comes off Brown trying to prove to us how much he knows about the subjects. You can often skip entire pages and not have missed anything related to the actual story. It’s as if he has written this book because we won’t believe that he has been on tours of Florence and Venice and dutifully took down all the inane trivia the tour guides spout. As if we won’t believe he has access to the internet to read Dante’s biography. I understand he was an English teacher and therefore very knowledgable on and interested in the subject of Dante, but he should have found a better outlet for his knowledge rather than padding out what was meant to be a thriller.
In summary this book is a horrible disappointment. It is a guidebook of Florence and Venice, and a sermon on Dante’s Divine Comedy, not very artfully wrapped up in a “thriller”. Rather than a thriller that includes trivia and puzzles, this is a whole bunch of trivia that also has some suspense. A very little bit of it. As far as characters go, they don’t come close to what we have seen in previous Robert Langdon books; the torn and tortured figure of the Camerlengo comes to mind. Rather the characters that inhabit this story are either uninteresting, ill formed, or comical. By the end I just wanted it to stop. I didn’t care about the twists, I didn’t even really care about the outcome. I just wanted to see the last page. Two out of five. I probably won’t be wasting my time with another Dan Brown book in the future.
Author: Dan Brown
Pages: 480 (Paperback)
Josh’s Rating: 2/5
Amazon Link: Inferno