Thursday, January 2, 2014

Inferno Offers Another Puzzle-Like Plot

The things I’ve always enjoyed about Dan Brown’s books have been the historical/religious elements, the European settings, and the puzzle-like plots. I know a lot of literary critics and book reviewers are critical of Dan Brown’s writing style (here’s a great example), but I don’t get too wrapped up in that. I generally find the books entertaining and each chapter keeps me turning the pages, making them quick reads. I just finished Dan Brown’s Inferno, and while it was not my favorite Robert Langdon novel, here are my thoughts.

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.


Amit Agarwal said...

A clever mystery thriller I must say holds you till you finish.

As in Dan Brown's any other thriller Inferno not only presents to the readers the story; but also a very profound information about the history and culture of the geographic location the story moves around. Though the same makes the story little slow but that's what I really like about his writing i.e the detail.
Art and culture mentioned in this story are brain nourisher.

The practices performed and organizations mentioned in his stories exists which again adds further interest to the reader.

I give this international bestseller a 5Star for its phenomenal story.

Joseph Finley said...

Amit, thanks for the comment and your great review! I agree, there is a lot to like about this book.

Bill said...

Without getting into the plot or Dan Brown's merits, I would agree with your statement about there being less than universal concern about any coming overpopulation crisis. In fact, I think it is becoming quite apparent that the 21st century may face a crisis - or series of crises in different societies - of the opposite problem. That is, a crisis of aged populations that have failed to reproduce enough people of working age. Japan and much of Europe is already pretty far down this road, and China is belatedly realizing the danger their one child policy has created.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, I tend to agree.

Bill said...

An entertaining retelling of Dante's most famous work that I read years ago was "Inferno" by SciFi writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Here's a description:


After being thrown out the window of his luxury apartment, science fiction writer Allen Carpentier wakes to find himself at the gates of hell. Feeling he's landed in a great opportunity for a book, he attempts to follow Dante's road map. Determined to meet Satan himself, Carpentier treks through the Nine Layers of Hell led by Benito Mussolini, and encounters countless mental and physical tortures. As he struggles to escape, he's taken through new, puzzling, and outlandish versions of sin—recast for the present day."

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, thanks. I absolutely love Larry Niven's Inferno! I probably read it 25 years ago, but it remains one of my favorites. Also, I just ordered my copy of The Pagan Lord, scheduled to arrive on the book's release date. Looking forward to it.

Bill said...

Did you read the sequel, "Escape from Hell", Joe?

Also, you love The Pagan Lord. I've even gotten a tiny little bit into Old English vocabulary and grammar from some You Tube videos.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, I didn't even know about a sequel, but I will certainly look into it!