Book Review: Inferno by Dan Brown
I've not been looking forward to writing this review. I did think about not posting it at all but I invested a significant amount of time in reading the book and it raised several points which, I decided, might make for an interesting piece. Further, this author has already sold millions upon millions of copies so I don't think my little blog will cause much consternation. I have, however, decided not to use the book cover as I don't want to get into any copyright hot water. I have thus far taken the view that if a review is favourable, a publisher is unlikely to take issue with an image used in a post which gives free, positive publicity but as my review is going to contain a number of negative comments, I decided to go with some lovely pictures taken by my brother when he went to Istanbul last year which, I can assure you, directly relate to the novel's plot.
I am assuming that most people reading this will already be familiar with Dan Brown and his novels, which include the hugely famous The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons so I will move straight on to his latest book and the subject of this review Inferno.
Inferno was first published in the UK in May 2014. It is the fourth book in a series which features fictional renowned symbologist Robert Langdon. I have read the previous three books plus the other two novels which this author has published and, with the possible exception of The Lost Symbol (which I had a few issues with towards the end) I have thoroughly enjoyed them all. I was therefore very much looking forward to Inferno, particularly as I had been reading something heavy and demanding beforehand and was craving some light relief - a good page turner which would keep me guessing whilst engaging my brain sufficiently that I felt entertained throughout.
Unfortunately this isn't what I got. Now, there are plenty of four and five star reviews out there for this book so thousands of people were obviously thrilled by it and I respect that. I believe that people should read whatever they enjoy and I don't like it when people look down upon the work of a particular author on the basis that they write popular fiction which is perhaps lacking in heavy-weight literary merit. I attended a literary festival a few years ago where the panel engaged in frequent 'Dan Brown bashing' and I found it uncomfortable. Therefore, I was hoping to love this novel but sadly found myself disappointed.
After giving this review considerable thought, I have decided to break it down, with childlike simplicity, into 'things I liked about it' and 'things I didn't like about it' with the hope that I will give a balanced view.
Things I liked about it:
Locations - The cities used within the novel greatly appeal to me. Florence and Istanbul are portrayed as beautiful, vibrant places steeped in history and the author has clearly immersed himself in both. Sights and smells were brought to life and iconic buildings described in detail. I did, however, find aspects of the setting problematic and these are covered below.
Dante references - Each of Dan Brown's books is based around a historical/artistic theme and set in one or two well known cities which complement the narrative. In this case the poet Dante Alighieri, and in particular his infamous work The Divine Comedy, written during the early fourteenth century, formed the backdrop to the puzzle and chase at the heart of the plot. This was a big draw for me and I found the insights into Dante fascinating. I had recently read parts of The Divine Comedy and so had a natural interest in it as a backdrop for a modern mystery/thriller. So far so good.
The pacing, after about page 200! - This is also a good point and a bad point. I found that the first half of this book dragged but it suddenly picked up about half-way through and I found myself much more engaged and reading more quickly.
Things I didn't like so much
Character development was sketchy - Ok, so this is meant to be a fast-paced thriller and it features a series character with whom many of the readers will already be familiar but this doesn't mean that character depth can be ignored completely. I still need to care about these people and I found that I did not. The main character is rather flat but my biggest issue was with the female counterpart, Sienna. Fair enough, the author tries to make her bright and capable but it was done in a very cumbersome and inconsistent way. We are told rather than shown so much about her that it read like a character synopsis. I found descriptions of her appearance to be cringe-worthy and the interaction between herself and Robert Langdon in the first half of the book made me squirm at times, it was so flat and stereotypical.
Description - Atmosphere was severely lacking, at least until the mid-point. The word 'eerie' was used dozens of times to the point where it jarred me out of the story every time it appeared. It makes me wonder where his editor's head was. Eerie is a good word but there are plenty of others and its constant use came across as lazy.
Location - Whilst I found the settings to be attractive and interesting, I was puzzled by the way in which much of the information and description was inserted into the narrative. Rather than being cleverly woven into the plot, there were huge paragraphs of informative text just dropped into the book, slowing down the action and, to be honest, much of it just seemed out of place at times.
The writing style - I wasn't after something beautifully crafted when I picked up this book but I did expect something professionally put together. After all, this is Dan Brown. He has made millions of dollars and doesn't churn books out. I would have thought, therefore, that significant time and effort would have gone into his latest offering. The resources available must have been immense yet, in my opinion, it reads like an early draft. It was too long (a hundred pages could have been cut and it would have been better for it), the same words were repeated regularly, often in the same line or paragraph, the use of the singular 'was' and the plural 'were' was dubious in several places, the reader is repeatedly told how the characters 'felt' (again - this is meant to be a fast thriller and the action shouldn't be slowed by too much description but I thought it went too far - Langdon 'felt' one way then Sienna 'felt' another way all the way through and it started to grate quite early on) and the whole thing 'felt' clunky. A thorough edit and a rewrite could have made it a much more satisfying read and I think this is what annoyed me most. This isn't his first offering and I know he can do so much better on the basis that his earlier books were a pleasure to read. Such a dip in quality is a real shame and I found it a little insulting. To end this point on a positive note, however, I found that many of these issues were in the first half of the book. Then it mysteriously picked up in quality and tempo and I even began to enjoy it - reminded of his earlier books which I found so engaging.
Plot - My main issue with his last book The Lost Symbol was that the plot faded away at the end. I just ddidn't buy into it. Having said that, it managed not to spoil the entire book hence my desire to read Inferno. I have to say, the plot in Inferno didn't quite hold together for me either, at the end. I don't want to include any spoilers so I will simply say that I think he just about got away with it again but I would have liked to have been presented with a more satisfying conclusion.
In summary I was relieved when I finished this book. Whilst it had its plus points and I would not knock anyone for enjoying it (or anything, for that matter!) I found it to be too poorly put together to get any real joy from it, although it improved markedly from around the mid-point. I am glad that there are people still enjoying his work but I don't think I will be reading his next offering.
Published by: Doubleday; First Edition (15 Jan. 2015)
I'll steer clear of spoilers here as I know that there are still a few people who have not yet read this book! It made it on to my extensive to be read pile for a couple of reasons. First, I'd just invested in a Kindle and was wanting to try it out when an offer came through to purchase it for £1.79. Secondly, I wanted to read something current. There was a discussion going on and I was keen to join in.
The book's premise is, by now, fairly well known. It is written primarily from the viewpoint of Rachel, a woman in her early thirties who spends a serious amount of time staring out of the window of a train during her daily commute into London. She passes this time building up a fantasy world around the people she sees by way of compensation for the things that are lacking in her own life.
It is written in the first person, present tense, and it may take a few pages to adapt to this if it is not what you are used to. But that is as long as it will take, I promise. The immediacy of the writing, the access it gives to Rachel's thoughts, quickly drew me in and I could not rest until every layer of character and plot had been revealed.
At the heart of the book there is a mystery which unravels through the multiple viewpoints of three different women (although we stay largely with Rachel) and it is the combination of this mystery and the detailed and realistic way in which the characters are drawn which had me racing through to the end. The intimacy which was developed with the characters really took hold, pulling me into their world and compelling me to finish the book in just three days when really I should have been doing other things. It has been a while since that has happened to me and I was glad of it.
After finishing the book and posting my review on Goodreads, I read through some of the other comments. Inevitably there were plenty of one and two star reviews alongside the many five star appraisals (my own included). The main problems the detractors had were:
1) There were no nice/good/admirable characters. True, perhaps, but it didn't bother me. Most characters in most books are flawed in some way and the first person narrative really shows up every weakness a character has. I wonder how many people we would like in real life if we had access to their every thought?
2) The ending was predictable. I disagree with this. It was guessable, certainly, but that is part of the book's appeal and there were so many suspects and red-herrings that there could have been any number of viable endings. Yes, I had my suspicions and ultimately I was right, but I still needed to know how it would resolve and I would not have felt cheated had it ended in a different way.
So, in summary, a five-star (if uncomfortable in places) read for me based on devourability (new word I've just made up, there), excellent writing and the cleverness on the part of the author in dragging me, cringing, into Rachel's rock-bottom world.
I love most types of fiction - crime, mystery, fantasy. Oh, and historical fiction of course and middle-grade books and, well, you get the picture.
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