Book Review: “Inferno” by Dan Brown
I did it. I finally made the decision to read Dan’s Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, and I stuck with it until the end. I don’t mean to be a dick about it. After all, I was a fan of The Da Vinci Code (which I credit as the catalyst for getting me back into reading regularly) and found Angels & Demons exciting in a guilty-pleasure kinda way. Even The Lost Symbol, which came after the blistering success of Da Vinci, was a page-turner.
But let’s face it, Dan Brown is not the greatest writer in the world and has been ruthlessly ridiculed for years because of it. After reading Inferno cover to cover, it’s easy to see why the man has his critics — but honestly, he is not that bad. Perhaps he has improved his writing over the years, or maybe he got a new editor, or both. He might still be no Hemingway, but he’s no Stephenie Meyer (the blood-sucking vampire who gave us The Twilight Saga) either, and he is certainly no EL James (the demon who sucked the blood of Stephenie Meyer to create The 50 Shades Trilogy).
Inferno is the fourth book to star Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbolist played by the worst haircuts Tom Hanks has ever had in the movie versions of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. The Da Vinci Code was focused largely on the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, in particular The Last Supper, while Angels & Demons was about the Vatican, and The Lost Symbol about the masons in Washington DC. This time, Inferno is centered on the 14th century epic poem of the same name written by Dante Alighieri, which is all about his journey through the nine circles of hell.
It sounds pretty fascinating and it is, at times, but I found Inferno to have the least intriguing subject matter of all the Langdon novels despite having possibly the highest and most realistic stakes. Can’t say more than that without divulging spoilers.
Anyway, kudos to Brown for trying to build something to rival his most popular books when he could have been counting money instead. The formula of Inferno is pretty much the same as the other Langdon books. It starts off with the same spiel under the now-infamous title of FACT, and follows Langdon as he travels through various cities (this time predominantly in Italy) to solve cryptic clues that lead to more cryptic clues that could help him save the world from some catastrophic terror. Again.
For all his faults as a novelist, Brown is the master of creating fast-paced action and threading the action with the requisite background and explanations without skipping a beat. The chapters are short to keep up the suspense and there are plenty of twists and turns and red herrings to throw you off track, which I admit Brown does very well, probably as well as anything he does with the exception of describing architecture and giving history lessons on the run.
As expected, Inferno is filled with historical and architectural nuggets, much of which is very interesting but also completely unnecessary and irrelevant to the narrative. I had the feeling that Brown had plenty more trivia to share but was forced to pare it back (to 480 pages). There were a few times in Inferno where I felt he slowed it down too much to explain something, but in general the novel was effective as a page-turner — not bad for a book that at times felt like a collection of glorified Wikipedia entries.
Inferno’s biggest flaw is that Brown does not claim that Dante’s poem contains any secret messages in itself (like say Da Vinci’s The Last Supper or in the architectural symbols in Washington DC). All the cryptic clues are artificially “inserted” by a Dante fanatic who really has no reason to be giving them away, especially when they would help the fanatic’s enemies from stopping him achieve his ultimate goal. That’s the thing with Dan Brown novels — you start wondering “why” and it all falls apart.
The problem with Brown’s writing is still…the writing. Inferno is an unsightly adverb fest (zing!) with little subtlety (never his strong suit), too much overwriting, and littered with irritating phrases like “smiled at the handsome academic beside her” and “involving the distinguished academic in the crisis” — for God’s sake, his name is Langdon! Even a simple “him” would have sufficed. But you know what? It’s still better than it used to be.
The characters are also made of paper (zing again!). We’ve followed Langdon for four books now and all we know is that he is tall, handsome, has a wry sense of humour and is claustrophobic. His new lady friend (he has a new lady friend in each book) has a little more depth, but it is impossible for someone like her to exist in real life. On top of that, there is a villain who seems to have been created with actor David Morse in mind (very tall, green eyes, enigmatic), and a beautiful, elegant silver-haired woman who conjures images of Helen Mirren. None of them are particularly interesting.
On the whole, however, I would rank Inferno as Brown’s third best book, below The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, but above The Lost Symbol and the non-Langdon Deception Point and Digital Fortress. The subject matter of Inferno is just not as interesting as the other Langdon novels, making it also less of a page-turner, even though the writing is technically better. That said, Dan Brown fans will surely lap it up, and casual fans could still find the brisk and educational read enjoyable.