May 27, 2013
Ever since Dan Brown hit big time in 2003 with his controversial book "The Da Vinci Code", all his subsequent books have become publishing events. That novel, set in Paris, was not only a big best-seller in book stores (up to $250M in sales income), but also a box office hit with its movie version (despite poor reviews). His controversial interpretation of Mary Magdalene as the Holy Grail of the Last Supper had the Catholic Church up in arms, further raising the book's popularity and notoriety. The central character Robert Langdon was a Harvard professor of Symbology, hence the story involved very interesting discourses on symbols in history, art, architecture, and literature intertwined with a complicated crime mystery story.
Brown's first book with Langdon "Angels and Demons," released in year 2000, was set in Rome and Vatican City, dealing with the Illuminati. Its sales skyrocketed after the success of DVC, and it also got a movie version as well. Brown's other previous books without Langdon, "Digital Fortress" (1998) and "The Deception Point" (2001) also made it to best-seller lists. After DVC, Brown's next novel was released in 2009 called "The Lost Symbol," (MY REVIEW) which had Langdon running all over Washington, DC monuments hounded by a deranged Freemason. On May 14, 2013, Dan Brown released his latest work, called "Inferno."
"Inferno" has Robert Langdon following the clues left by a mysterious man in a modified painting of Sandro Botticelli's "La Mappa dell'Inferno", which in turn was a tribute to an earlier, more celebrated piece of literature, Dante's "Inferno." This time, his adventures have him travelling to several European cities, from Florence and Venice in Italy, to Istanbul in Turkey. Like all his other Langdon books, there were so many trivial details about this work of art and this complex literary classic, as well as many of the major museums, cathedrals and mosques found in these cities. Like his other books, there was an attractive young lady going along his adventures with Langdon, in this book it was former child prodigy, now Doctor Sienna Brooke.
I have been to all three of these main cities where this story had been set, but unlike Paris, Rome and Washington in the previous books, my memory of the three cities in "Inferno" is already quite vague. There were places mentioned like Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace in Florence which I do not recall at all. Fortunately, the Baptistry and Palazzo Vecchio though were more familiar. In Venice, he described St. Mark's Basilica and The Doge's Palace, which are of course familiar. I wished I could recall seeing the Bridge of Sighs and the Horses of St. Mark's, but I can't. In Istanbul, of course I remember the Hagia Sophia, as well as the Blue Mosque, but not the Cistern.
If I had just remembered more details about these cities, reading this book would have been more exciting. I remember how I enjoyed reading "Angels & Demons" so much because I recalled Rome very vividly. Reading about these places now certainly made me want to revisit these grand cities and see these landmarks in a different light. Another thing, I have not read Dante's "Inferno" yet, so many times, it was hard to follow the discussions about that epic as well, and I just had to accept Brown's interpretation as true. It would have been better if you are already familiar with Dante yourself so you can pit your ideas with Brown's.
Of course, the most familiar city mentioned in this book is Manila. The Chairman of the Metro Manila Authority apparently wrote a letter to Dan Brown to complain why Manila was called "the gates of hell" in the book. I was really looking forward to reading this part of the book, imagining how Langdon would be going around the churches and museums of Manila too. But alas, that is not to be. In fact the mention of Manila was only in one singular chapter, 79. It could have been any other third world city, honestly. The city was unfortunately chosen to be the venue of a ugly, traumatic, life-changing event for a major character in the book, and it is NOT Langdon. Brown cited Manila supposedly to be the most densely populated city in the world that is why it was chosen for this part of the story. I have difficulty believing this "fact" since there are cities in India or South America which would certainly as dense (if not denser) in population than Manila also living in the described squalor.
Without spoiling the plot, it would suffice to say that the main topic of the novel involves the very serious topic of human overpopulation. How Brown related Dante's "Inferno" to the World Health Organization, that you simply have to read for yourself. As in his other novels, there were parts where Brown was obviously stretching the book by adding so much detailed research summaries on several topics, unrelated as they may be, as well as sprinkling the text with confusing red herrings. In this book, certain passages are mentioned more than once. The beginning of a chilling video was described multiple times as it gets seen by different people. That one got really irritatingly repetitive. The description of a certain romantic interlude was repeated verbatim in two different chapters with different contexts. But I thought that one was a humorous "gotcha" moment while reading.
Overall, this novel is easy to read and understand, despite the seemingly complicated web of interlocking stories. Everything in this novel practically happened in a single day only. The action sequences described are so unbelievable unless middle-aged professor Langdon and young doctor Brooke were super-ninjas who can outrun bullets and evade police blockades. Well, I have to admit that the narrow escapes here were at least more realistic than the fantastic way Langdon survived a parachute-less fall out of a helicopter in flight in "Angels & Demons". (That scene was so impossible it was not even shown in the film version of A&D.)
There were so many sudden bright ideas and coincidences which conveniently make Langdon progress so fast in his investigation, despite the most nebulous of clues. Of course that both Langdon and Sienna have eidetic memories made things a lot easier for them. There were also many unabashedly sentimental scenes, written so cheesily it felt embarrassing to read. The scene in Manila was one of them. After the climax, the falling action parts I wish they had been written better. Those last few chapters seemed to have been written in a rush just to wrap things up neatly, without a clear idea on how to end things more satisfactorily.
But for me, being the history, travel and culture buff that I am, it was those historical, art and literature mini-discourses which I find most fascinating in Dan Brown's Langdon books, with the story just secondary. I enjoyed reading "Inferno" as it was fast-paced and interesting, hard to put down despite the occasional cheesy interludes. While "Angels & Demons" still remains to be my favorite Langdon book, this one is as good as the rest of the series, better than "The Lost Symbol". I will still be looking forward to Dan Brown's next book and Langdon's next adventure. Maybe an Asian adventure next time?