Descent into Inferno: Thoughts on the new Dan Brown book

After eagerly anticipating the new Dan Brown novel, I finally finished Inferno recently. It was the first time I read a Dan Brown novel over a few weeks (I usually devour these books in a few days, if not less). However, I was busy with a few other things, and I think this fragmented approach to a story that commands attention might be why I initially didn’t enjoy it too much.

However, after completing the 600+ page novel, I must say that I’m impressed. Brown hasn’t lost his touch of edge-of-your-seat action and suspense. Inferno is fast-paced and its backstory is interesting enough to keep your compelled. It even got me thinking deeper about some of the implications hinted at in the story, and I’ve been searching and reading up on the artwork and science that inspired Brown’s storyline.

Inferno is both just like, and unlike, his previous works. That’s a paradoxical statement, I know, but here’s the explanation: firstly, like every Langdon (or, in fact, Dan Brown) novel, we have a hero who’s an expert, brought into the midst of some deadly plot that has serious consequences for humanity. This plot is usually based on some arcane historic artefact or knowledge, and there’s usually heavy religious undertones. The conflict between religion and science is set against this backdrop, and the hero, assisted by an attractive secondary character (also some expert inextricably linked in some way to the initial upset that instigates the hero’s involvement in the plot) is hunted by either the authorities, the bad guys, or sometimes even both. The villain bases his/their plan on the arcane history, of which the expert is indeed able to understand and thus search for clues that get the duo (and the reader, foolish enough to get themselves lost in Brown’s suspenseful writing style) closer to understanding what the hell is going on.

Ok, that sounds a bit mean to Brown – his books are, after all, enormously successful. But you can’t deny that this structure is evident in all four (including Inferno) Langdon books.

But then, Inferno adds a level of twist to the Dan Brown Formula: firstly, it’s not so heavily religion-based as, say, Angels and Demons or The Da Vinci Code. Instead, it sets a health crisis against the landscape of one of the greatest poems ever written, a definitive epic of the Italian language: Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Specifically, the first part – Inferno. 

Then, the entire plot is laced with elements that just don’t seem to tie-up, until you get the the ending: a conclusion that, for me, made it worth trudging through some of the sometimes predictable scenes. And, as for the scientific angle: it’s to do with world population dynamics.

So, a Dan Brown book about population, Dante’s Inferno, and some plot that involves hunting down Robert Langdon because he knows something that could be potentially lethal (even though the professor can’t recall why he’s even in Florence…)

Sounds intriguing?

Without wanting to give anything away, here’s the basic premise of Inferno: Robert Langdon wakes up in Florence with no recollection of how he got there. Assisted by the pretty but incredibly enigmatic Dr Sienna Brooks, he is on the run from soldiers belonging to someone that is hell-bent on getting hold of him – by any means necessary, it seems. The only thing Langdon remembers is a vague image of an underground cavern with a dark lake filled with writhing dead bodies, and the spectral vision of a woman with silver hair calling out to him: “Seek, and ye shall find.” Oh, and he discovers he’s in the possession of mysterious object that points him to Dante’s Inferno poem, instigating the duo’s search for clues from the Divine Comedy that can give them an idea of what’s going on.

There’s a lot more to the story than that, of course (this being a Dan Brown novel, its full of twists and surprises). It combines secret organisations, the World Health Organisation, Renaissance art filled with symbolism pointing the way, copious doses of references to Dante’s Inferno, and, of course, a serious threat to our planet. In other words, your typical Dan Brown novel, just with a few more twists that make it a very interesting read.

Parts of it were a bit slow, but despite reading it in bits and pieces over a few weeks, I couldn’t put it down as I got to the final quarter. That’s when things started to get… exciting. Inferno is also set in some great international locales, and the settings themselves add a dynamic that engrosses the reader in the entire storyline. Brown’s managed to make all these seemingly disparate elements of storytelling – setting, plot, the complex science and art that forms Inferno’s framework, intriguing characters – sing together. That’s some skill.

I don’t want to write anymore about this novel; if you’re a Dan Brown fan, you’ll want to read this as soon as you possibly can. Highly recommended for those who enjoyed his previous Langdon novels, although it doesn’t have any references to the previous ones (it could be read as a standalone book).

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