Inferno probably had the fewest religious themes of any of the Robert Langdon books. The focus this time, at least superficially, is Dante and his Divine Comedy (particularly Inferno), but the book doesn’t delve too deeply into the intricacies of Dante’s masterpiece. Instead it focus more on art and scientific theories such as transhumanism and overpopulation. The story begins in Florence where Harvard professor Robert Langdon awakes in a hospital with amnesia. All he knows is that an assassin is trying to kill him, and the only person who can help him is Dr. Sienna Brooks, his treating physician. Langdon soon discovers he’s in possession of a message created by a madman and Dante enthusiast who is threatening to unleash “Inferno,” a bioengineered virus that will replicate the effects of the Black Death to purportedly “save” the world from overpopulation.
|Botticelli's "Map of Hell" plays a big role in the novel.|
Like all the Robert Langdon novels, Inferno contains a good puzzle-like plot that’s fun to try to solve. Most of the puzzles involve some connection to Dante (or artwork based on the poem), though there is a good historical element to the puzzle as well. At one point, there’s a riddle written by the madman that truly had me thinking – it’s very well done. I also loved the Italian settings. The first half of the book takes place in Florence, and it made me want to go back there (I’ve been once, but clearly didn’t explore enough of it). Another quarter of the book takes place in Venice, one of my favorite places. Then there’s the story’s fast pace and the cliffhanger endings at each chapter. Some readers don’t like all the historical exposition and research Brown dumps into his novels, but I’m a history nut, so I don’t mind it at all and I don’t think it affects the pace. I found myself looking up all kind of facts about Florence and other topics just to see how accurate his research was. I like it when a book makes me think beyond its pages.
|Dante's vision of Purgatory plays a role in the book too.|
Here is what I was less crazy about: like all Langdon novels, there’s a twist, and the one in Inferno is bigger than any of his previous books. The problem is that Brown has to use so much misdirection to make this work that, as a reader, I almost felt too deceived. After the twist occurred, I went back and re-read large portions of the book just to see how honest the author was being. And while most of it was “honest” misdirection and sleight of hand, I’m still not sure the first three quarters of the book make complete sense after the big reveal.
The other thing I was bit annoyed about was that every character seemed to buy into the theory of an overpopulation crisis – a notion that within a generation or two humankind will kill itself off due to massive population growth. After doing a little research on the subject, however, it’s clear that a lot of folks believe this is a myth, and certainly reasonable minds can disagree. Since the entire premise of Inferno is based on the overpopulation issue, it would have been nice if at least one character might be skeptical about the theory so the debate could be more fully explored.
All that said, the villain’s views on overpopulation, coupled with his obsession with Dante and the Black Death, makes for a chilling adversary and gives a real urgency to the catastrophe Langdon and Dr. Brooks are racing to prevent. In the end, the story entertained, and, to me, that’s one of the most important aspects of good genre fiction.