<Spoiler Alert – Some plot points and locations from the novel will be mentioned in the review>
Inferno is Dan Brown’s latest Robert Langdon thriller, and with Brown there are a few things you know you are going to get: non-stop action, detailed descriptions of exotic locales (heck, DC is exotic to me, so even The Lost Symbol did this), cyphers and puzzles, good-but-not-great writing, and enough gotchas to keep your head spinning.
I found Inferno to be slightly slower paced than The Lost Symbol, but not as carefully plotted out as Brown’s earlier work. The book begins with Langdon recovering in hospital with a head wound and a case of amnesia, and sure enough within moments someone is trying to kill him. The reader is taken from one set scene to another in staccato fashion, with the occasional flashback or chapter focusing on a secondary character slowing the pace a little.
The action takes place primarily in three locations: Florence and Venice in Italy, and Istanbul in Turkey. As is Brown’s tendency, each location is given the full tourist treatment, with picture postcard descriptions of all of the major architectural sites and places of interests. These sections read largely like a Rick Steve’s guidebook, and while they are definitely appealing (I found myself wanting to go back to Italy), they do tend to pull the reader out of the flow of the book when used too often (which happens a lot – Langdon is truly a man on the move).
Brown’s bread and butter is his use of artwork and historical locations to create elaborate puzzles that only a symbologist – a non-existent profession, but hey, if I get to travel the world like Langdon, sign me up! – can possibly solve. The problem for me, and for many of the readers I have spoken to about this, is that the puzzles just aren’t that difficult. This is a problem that Brown has attempted to address, first in The Lost Symbol and now more so in Inferno, by obfuscating facts and hiding information from the reader. Here, he uses the device of Langdon’s head injury and amnesia to force him to go step-by-step through the discovery process, coming to sudden realizations about obvious clues on several occasions. This comes across as contrived. And when Langdon doesn’t recognize extremely direct clues that basically name specific sites, it becomes much harder to believe. Isn’t Langdon supposed to be an expert? In fact, the expert in his field? And he has done plenty of work on Dante, which he reiterates a number of times. His inability to put facts together is, at times, a real head-scratcher.
Further undermining the entertainment value of this book, there are a number of plot twists that really stretched this reader’s suspension of disbelief, enough so that I was taken solidly out of the narrative in order to go back over earlier chapters. For a book of this sort, this is disastrous. Thrillers rely, by their nature, on their sheer page-turning velocity, and jarring the reader out of the flow by throwing in unbelievable plot twists smacks of desperate writing. On the opposite side of the spectrum, many of the twists and puzzles are so obvious that I could see them far in advance. Once or twice makes for a sense of accomplishment, but more than that and you feel as though the author is writing down to his audience a little too much. In addition, Brown has more Dei ex machina than Douglas Adams, but at least Adams was doing it for comic effect. The biggest plot hole in the entire book (and a pretty good Deus in its own right)is the fact that there is a series of clues for Langdon to follow. Each clue is carefully scripted in the grand tradition of the most clichéd of Bond villains intent on world destruction – beyond that, I won’t say anything more specific so as to not spoil them for anyone. Brown already does a good enough job of that himself.
On a positive note, I did actually find the novel entertaining. Brown’s play with metanarrative – his occasional reminders that Dante’s Inferno has inspired countless works of art, as you are reading a book that is so obviously inspired by Dante as to borrow his title – is a nice piece of self-awareness on the part of the author, and he does work many of the more common tropes of the Hero’s Journey into the novel, giving it a comforting familiarity. I enjoyed the book, yes, but would I read it again? Not likely.
Steve’s Grade: C
The book delivers on exotic locales and fast pace, but becomes too contrived by the end.