Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

Dan Brown’s latest Robert Langdon adventure arrives and has already set the charts alight. But will it leave you warm inside or burnt to a crisp?

“‘Seek and ye shall find.’

With these words echoing in his head, eminent Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon awakes in a hospital bed with no recollection of where he is or how he got there. Nor can he explain the origin of the macabre object that is found hidden in his belongings.

A threat to his life will propel him and a young doctor, Sienna Brooks, into a breakneck chase across the city of Florence. Only Langdon’s knowledge of hidden passageways and ancient secrets that lie behind its historic facade can save them from the clutches of their unknown pursuers.

With only a few lines from Dante’s dark and epic masterpiece, The Inferno, to guide them, they must decipher a sequence of codes buried deep within some of the most celebrated artefacts of the Renaissance – sculptures, paintings, buildings – to find the answers to a puzzle which may, or may not, help them save the world from a terrifying threat.”

Four years ago, Brown’s The Lost Symbol arrived and for me, it resulted in the book being flung across the room in exasperation after two hundred pages. Disappointingly it came across merely as a rehash of his previous book, The Da Vinci Code, a novel I felt that was full of ideas but poorly executed. So when heading into Brown’s latest I was left unsure as to what to expect . Ultimately it ends up being somewhere between the two.

The opening chapters had me hooked as an amnesiac Langdon wakes up in a hospital room after apparently being shot in the head. How did he get to Florence and who is trying to kill him? These opening pages feel quite fresh and different, as by taking away Langdon’s memory, it enables Brown to retrace Langdon’s footsteps. Very soon though the book settles into Brown’s tried and tested formula of lots of running around while explaining things.

You really do read Brown’s books for the plots alone and it shows here. With short, quick chapters it’s certainly a page-turner and to give Brown credit, he knows how to end every chapter on a cliffhanger. It zips along, detailing information at a dazzling speed while presenting exotic locations and tantalizing glimpses of historical and literary fact. Yet passages clunk with awkward dialogue that can be described as tortuous at best. The dialogue is here to simply advance the plot and little else. I know that we’re not watching Citizen Kane here, this is a summer blockbuster of a novel, a tortuous Michael Bay popcorn flick, and what many want is just plot, plot, plot. I was just left feeling that the characters are rather two-dimensional and you never really get a chance to connect with them as the pages fly past.

The biggest problem though is that unlike in earlier books where you see Langdon as being out of his depth, a humble academic placed into a situation he doesn’t fully understand, in Inferno, everywhere he goes someone knows him and is on hand to help. It’s almost cheating when no matter what situation he is placed in Langdon has been there before or knows someone who can assist. Where’s the peril? Where’s the risk?

As for the research in which Brown is praised for, it did feel authentic and convincing, even if it relies on too much Basil Exposition style dialogue. I was left wondering after yet another explanation of a painting: is there anything Robert Langdon doesn’t know? As we travel around Florence, Brown ends up being little more than a tour guide and one that certainly exudes enthusiasm for the topic and places at hand. He does though leave you wondering if you really did need to know everything that there is on offer. The plot grinds to a halt at these moments of admiration and also breaks the cardinal rule of showing and not telling. It’s just tell, tell, tell.

Without spoiling too much of the story, after The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, I thought it was clever of Brown to change tacks with the plot. Dante and his Divine Comedy are important here but soon you realise it is merely a device to talk about a much more important global issue. However once I’d finished the book I was left wondering if Brown really cannot do endings. With around 50-60 pages to go I was generally unsure and almost worried as to how the plot was going to resolve itself satisfactorily. It turns out that I was correct. The book whimpers to a halt, leaving far too many questions hanging in the air (pun intended).

“Inferno starts off burning bright but ends with a sizzle”

Overall, Inferno starts off burning bright but ends with a sizzle. You expect plenty of twists and turns throughout and the book certainly delivers there apart from one twist too many which had me simultaneously laughing out loud and rolling my eyes.

What I was left with was a page-turning read that’s poorly written and with no true ending. It left me wanting to read Dante’s Inferno and visit to witness the many sights and sounds of Florence for myself, just not with Mr Brown or Mr Langdon for company.

– Rob
@robchilver

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