“Inferno” review #4

“Inferno”. It’s the name of a play. It’s the name of my favourite Jon Pertwee “Doctor Who” story and its the name of Dan Brown’s new novel. It’s a book I’ve been looking forward into, insofar as I’m curious to see whether it will spark the zeitgeist like “The Da Vinci Code” did.

I don’t think it will, but who knows?

So, how is it? Well, I’m going to unfairly compare Dan Brown’s “Inferno” to the classic “Doctor Who” story of parallel Earths, evil goo and terrible plastic teeth, rather than to Dante’s classic. I don’t think it’s fair to compare “Inferno” with “Inferno”, but it’s probably okay to compare “Inferno” to “Inferno”, if you know what I mean.

So, “Inferno.” It’s not as good as “Inferno”. Or “Inferno”, but you probably guessed that.

“Inferno” (well, the half I’ve read) has its stock characters with distinguishing features (a plague mask for one, baldness for another), the daring damsel with exceptional abilities and an instant love of the protagonist, a conspiratorial cartel with no ethical compass and Robert Langdon, a man who is obsessed by his suits and teaches courses at Harvard in the pseudo-discipline of “Symbology”.

I do wonder what Harvard thinks of that? I mean, I was shocked to hear Cambridge taught Sociology, so I can’t imagine Harvard’s too pleased to be linked with Symbology, even if it is just the fever dreams of Dan Brown and his “Mary Sue” complex.

“Inferno”, like all the Robert Langdon novels, is about symbols and the hidden messages in the architecture and art around us. This time, Langdon is in Florence (a step up from Washington, D.C.) and cannot remember the last two days. All he knows is that he has been shot, he has taken possession of a weird cylinder and someone (or some body) is out to get him. You’d think this was business as usual to Prof. Langdon, but he seems oddly perturbed. Obviously being targeted by a Pope of the Catholic Church, hounded by Opus Dei or been involved in a Freemasonic conspiracies has not made him complacent in the face of danger.

If it weren’t for a few sly references to the previous books, this could be considered the “Your First Robert Langdon” novel. It has all the elements of a conspiracy thriller.

Weird science: a woman with a super-evolved brain.

Secret societies: a Council for Foreign Relations evil scientist concerned with overpopulation.

Symbols: some causal art vandalism that suggests Dante and his fans knew more than they were letting on about.

Mystery: the suggestion that the international symbol for biological hazards represents a three-headed devil.

It also has the standard set of chase scenes featuring generic characters engaged in a succession of daring escapes and chapter-long pieces of exposition. It’s not well-written but the prose seems a step beyond Brown’s usual efforts. Maybe the cliffhangers aren’t quite up to snuff, but I did not go in expecting much and I’m not being disappointed.

Well, not now. The first tenth of the book was dreadfully dull.

I’ve always maintained that the Robert Langdon novels started off as mediocre and have proceeded to get worse. “Angels and Demons” was a decent thriller; it hurtles along and has a quite clever twist. “The Da Vinci Code” somehow triggered something in a mass of readers which propelled it to the top of the charts and made it something you could respectably read outside of an airport lounge, but it was structurally too messy and ambitious. “The Lost Symbol” … Well, Robert Langdon spends almost sixty pages in a pagoda and the twist ending is that the Freemasons are hiding the existence of the Bible.

Yes, the Bible.

“Inferno” has its moments. The villain (as far as I can tell) is a Malthusian who is going to save the world by condemning it and I suspect Langdon is going to save the world, only to realise he has doomed it. As it stands the actual conspiracy seems oddly pedestrian whilst being much more insidious than anything Langdon has faced before; an odd state of affairs brought about by truly terrible exposition on the part of the villain and the woman who (at this stage of the game) seemingly opposes him.

The female character, Sienna, is unbelievable but strong, whilst the bit players are well-drawn (a rare feat in a Dan Brown novel). Unfortunately, the actual plot seems a tad too obvious (and maybe it seems that way because Brown is drawing attention away from the real threat: “Angels and Demons” is a case in point). I’m enjoying my time in Florence but I can’t help but think that the symbology in this story is mere window-dressing. In previous stories the symbols drove the plot because there were secret messages hidden in the art that only Langdon could decipher, and these messages, when decoded, could theoretically change history. This time… The symbols don’t seem to relate to the actual villainous scheme; they are in the story because Langdon has to be given something to do rather than something to uncover.

Still, it’s only half-time.

Back to it, I guess.


Aoibhheann says:

Wut?? Why would you review a book halfway through?

That’s taking half arse-ing things to a whole new level!

I was reviewing the book as I read it (as an exercise in seeing how my views on it changed during the course of reading it): the full/final review can be read here: http://berlinbooks.org/brb/2013/05/how-inferno-fails-to-set-the-world-on-fire/