Honestly, I don’t like writing reviews. If those who read the reviews read the book first, then they’re fine. But people tend to use reviews like Rotten Tomato for movies or app reviews on iTunes; they’re temperature gauges for a book’s predicted enjoyableness. It’s an indirect way of reading a book by its cover.
Why am I writing one now, then? For one thing, I hope everyone reading this has already read Brown’s latest novel or doesn’t care about it at all. But for another, such a novel deserves a response and not because of its profound literary quality.
In short, I’ve always enjoyed the thrill of Brown’s novels. Picture Indiana Jones in a Jason Bourne-like setting, but with no combat skills and some commitment issues (four novels, four girls – get your act together, Langdon). Sure, these story-lines are unrealistic, but hey, a lot of movies are that way: Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, etc., etc. What makes those movies enjoyable is not only the action, but also the relatable characters.
In Inferno, however, no such relatable characters exist. In writing scripts or novels, the most important aspect is how the characters are developed. How well or not well viewers or readers relate to the characters depends upon how well they’re developed in the story. Dan Brown did not do a great job of this at all.
Harvard Professor Robert Langdon wakes up in a hospital somewhere in Italy. Not even a day before, he was back in Massachusetts preparing for another week of class. Two doctors accompanying Langdon tell him he suffered a head wound from a missed gun shot. One side effect was a small, temporary case of amnesia; he could not remember the previous twenty-four hours. Soon after his short discussion with the doctors, his almost-assassin returns, shoots the male doctor in the chest, and then chases Langdon and Sienna – the female doctor who got Langdon ready quickly and led him on an escape from the hospital – through the next eight or ten chapters.
Langdon attempted calling the U.S. Embassy to receive some help in returning to the U.S., but minutes after his phone call, military-looking personnel arrive to Sienna’s apartment complex (they’re temporary hideout shortly after the hospital). Both Sienna and Langdon realize they were working with the spiky-haired woman who shot Langdon in the head (a graze, really) and who was chasing them through the hospital. Feeling terrified, they fled her apartment complex just as the military-looking squad was charging up the stairs.
To shorten what happens next, they flee to a museum, constantly elude the military squad, accidentally kill the spiky-haired woman from a museum’s attic, figure out they’re supposed to go to Venice based off a portable projection of an altered painting of a scene from Dante’s Inferno, almost totally escape the military personnel, but Langdon gets caught while Sienna runs away free. In Venice, three-quarters of the way through the novel, Langdon discovers everything he had believed up to that point had been lies.
Sienna secretly worked for the same agency that Vayentha, the spiky-haired chick, had worked for prior to her death. He learned that Vayentha was also an actress of sorts; she faked many assassinations to help “protect” various clients the agency was hired to protect. So, Langdon was not actually shot, was never in a hospital, never received real stitches, and he was not running from anyone trying to kill him because no one was trying to kill him. The military personnel was an elite crisis-averting squad trained in containing potential health crises so that few, if any, victims died. They were chasing Langdon because he had been working with them only hours before he woke up in the “hospital.”
Not only is this a classic, wool-over-the-eyes trick, but what never happens is any sort of real character development. Everyone up until Venice is not who they seem to be – not even Langdon. What’s worse is that there is never a relatable moment from any of the characters. Their fear, worry, and pain is all a facade; it’s all part of a grand scheme orchestrated by this top-secret agency who hired Sienna and Vayentha. The elite, military-looking squad actually worked for the World Health Organization.
Any truth that is discovered is in Venice. The World Health Organization tells Langdon they’re tracking down a potential plague developed by a genius biologist who also made incredible advancements in technology. He was also in love with Sienna. This top-secret agency reveals to both Langdon and the WHO that they were responsible for helping the bio-terrorist – their client – achieve his goals, even though he had committed suicide several days prior. Having a major change of conscience, this top-secret agency decides to assist the WHO in tracking down whatever plague this genius biologist had created.
Each character suddenly becomes terrified of this plague and readers are led to believe that if they don’t find what they need to find, they’re all going to die (because this biologist was all about solving
the global population problem by “thinning the herd”). When they finally arrive to where this plague, contained in a slowly-dissolving plastic baggy, was located, they find it was gone. At the moment of discovery, only Langdon and the squadron leader were there. Suddenly someone emerges from the darkness, knocks over Langdon, and flees.
Langdon chases this person all the way to a dock where many speedboats are anchored. However, this person is too quick; he/she hopped in a boat and drove away before Langdon ever had a chance of catching them. Yet, as he stands there on the dock, he can hear the boat idling out on the night-covered lake (or river or ocean, I can’t remember). Moments later, the boat turns back, pulls up to the dock, and shuts off the engine. It’s Sienna. After discussing trust for several moments, Langdon hugs Sienna and says, “You can trust me.”
What Sienna discovered and then revealed to everyone was that this “plague” had already been dispersed. The slowly-dissolving baggy had dissolved a week before Langdon ever even reached Italy. Everyone had already been infected with it. However, Sienna reveals the most peculiar thing about this “plague”; it’s actually a viral “disease” with a genetic code that would, over a short amount of time, render one-third of the world’s population unable to birth children. Global population would be thinned not by some major, catastrophic event, but by a slowly-developed disability to bring future generations into the world.
Only a few chapters later, there are some more discussions with Sienna – who has a 208 IQ – about trust and she winds up joining the leader of the WHO to discuss possible plans to counter this genetic problem. And that’s it. Langdon goes back to Harvard after kissing Sienna on the lips and the novel ends.
To describe Inferno: incredibly anti-climactic. To describe the characters and their emotions/relationships: forced. Having read it, though, I can now see how The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and The Lost Symbol (and even Deception Point and Digital Fortress – Brown’s two other, non-Langdon novels) were all almost the exact same way. I think I was too distracted by the controversial things Dan Brown had said via fiction about Christianity – what actually gave his novels their popularity.
When I finished Inferno and posted my progress on Goodreads, a wonderful app that helps track all the books you’ve read or want to read, I gave it two out of five stars. Why did I rate it two stars as opposed to one? Because in my creative writing classes, we learned to evaluate books by what does work and what doesn’t work. Having listed my major problems with Inferno, I have to say that what Brown was attempting at would have been a great story. Yet it would have required far fewer words and more time spent developing each of the main characters – not easy to do when the amount of time elapsed in one’s story line, as in Inferno, is barely more than a day or two (yes, there were flashbacks, but the “present” story was not long at all).
All in all Inferno is a waste of time. I’ve always admired Brown’s usage of history and symbolism (however misleading he has been at times), but this one fell quite short. Without relatable characters – however believable or unbelievable they may be – one cannot have a compelling novel. I didn’t feel Langdon’s whatever it was he was going through or Sienna’s insecurities when it came to trusting people or especially their affectionate feelings toward one another. It all felt told rather than shown to me.
One novel I’m still excited about – and soon to read – is Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed. He’s the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns – two novels I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Not sure if I’m going to write a review for that one, though; I’ll just have to see how it goes.
What’d you think?
For those who read Brown’s Inferno, what were your thoughts and feelings as you read? Did you enjoy the novel? Do you think I missed something important?