Saturday, July 13, 2013

Dan Brown's 'Inferno' Isn't Bad, but Doesn't Truly Catch Fire -- Book Review

Book Review

by Dan Brown

I admittedly don't read enough--of anything, but especially great literature--to be a reliable arbiter of what makes a truly exemplary novel.

For me, a good book is any that I'm able to get through from start to finish. Which primarily means thrillers from the likes of Harlan Coben, Lee Child and Linwood Barclay.

This isn't to say that the myriad started-and-stopped biographies strewn around my condo aren't good, nor that never having made much headway with The Corrections or Infinite Jest should be taken as a critical assessment of those acclaimed tomes.

But given my penchant for mysteries and thrillers, whenever one has gone beyond bestseller to become a ubiquitous part of the popular zeitgeist, I've been compelled to read along.

Of course, this has only happened three times in my recollection, with John Grisham's The Firm (which inspired me to read most of his works until recently), Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (I read both sequels as well) and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

Although the latter was one of the rather rare novels I've bought in hardcover, I didn't read it on its first wave of popularity but after there were stories regaling how popular it was.

I enjoyed it. Whether it was as good as all the hoopla that came to surround it, who knows, but it was a pretty strong thriller, and as a world traveler I appreciated all the art and history Dan Brown wove in.

I subsequently read and liked Brown's Angels & Demons, which centers around the same character as Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon) and may even be better, as well as the much awaited Da Vinci follow-up, 2009's The Lost Symbol.

I also enjoyed the author's two non-Langdon novels, Digital Fortress and Deception Point, which are both satisfying thrillers.

Which brings me to Inferno, Brown's latest novel--also featuring Robert Langdon, an art historian and symbologist--one that I wasn't aware was on its way until I saw a thousand copies at Barnes & Noble.

Particularly as I was going on a trip, during which a good thriller can be good company, I opted to download the Kindle version of Inferno, which I could read on my iPhone.

Although I didn't begin reading it until my journey home, over the last couple weeks I have been flipping its virtual pages with continue interest if not rapt fervor. As referenced above, just by virtue of getting through its 465 pages, I'd call Inferno a decent read, but I think it's the weakest of Brown's efforts to date.

If you've read and enjoyed Da Vinci Code / Angels & Demons / The Lost Symbol, there's no reason to avoid this one, though waiting for it to become available at your local library (even in digital form) or in paperback should suffice. If you haven't read any of the others, it shouldn't hamper your understanding or enjoyment, but this isn't where I'd start with Brown's oeuvre.

Though the suspense in Inferno, which leans on Dante's epic poem as a primary point of reference (don't worry if you've never read it; I haven't), is somewhat soft--without wanting to give anything away, Langdon finding himself in a precarious situation but escaping unscathed seems to endlessly reoccur--his overt use of setting and artistic landmarks remain fun.

As Langdon and his primary cohort in this one, a woman named Sienna Brooks, traipse through Florence in search of clues pertaining to Dante's Inferno and a modern-day threat to mankind, I frequently found myself accessing Wikipedia and Google Images to learn more about the places and artworks mentioned.

I'll leave the specifics unstated, but after beginning in Florence the action moves to two other historic cities, which furthered the art, architecture and history lesson.

Brown also weaves in an ethical debate of sorts about population control, and likely perils if the current birthrate isn't stemmed. 

So there is a good deal of value in Inferno, and in Brown as an author. But as opposed to, as I recall, Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, which are first-rate thrillers and travelogues--though the movie versions are lame--Inferno kindled my interest, but never truly set me ablaze.

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