I know good and well what to expect when I pick up a Robert Langdon novel. I know what to expect from the plot structure, the character development, the plot twists. And although this doesn’t deviate from the usual model, it was probably Brown’s weaker entry in the Robert Langdon series and it’s because he tried to appear more high-brow than he actually is.
Generally speaking, when I read a story, and by a story I literally mean any story, I don’t need some fancy-pants meaningful literature for it to be enjoyable. I just want some semblance of a plot, character interaction that makes sense (not necessarily character development, although that’s a bonus), continuity, and a conclusion that answers most questions raised in the story.
If you expect any of the above, do not read this book. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
First things first, reading a Dan Brown novel requires certain suspension of disbelief. You can’t start nitpicking at the first flaw you read, or the whole house of cards fall. You have to accept and be entertained by his novels for what they are: a Sunday afternoon of mindless fun.
You have to accept that a Harvard Art History Professor has that kind of connections and wealth and influence. You have to accept that there are apparently multiple secret groups out to destroy the world. You have to accept that these secret groups constantly use special codes a person with an understanding of Art History could crack (Kate Middleton has an Art History degree, could she technically be featured in the next Langdon novel theoretically? But I digress with my usual sarcasm).
But even with the above caveats, there were still multiple problems with ‘Inferno’.
The plot’s pacing was uneven; it crawled at a snail’s pace at the beginning and then Brown just started firing off multiple plot twists towards the end, releasing information intended to make so-and-so to be the bad guy but was obviously not the Big Bad because it wasn’t close enough to the conclusion. It made it difficult to take revelations seriously as plot twists were less shock-inducing and more like another piece of information I had to digest, but most likely didn’t need, to understand the ending.
Furthermore, none of the characters were probably developed, but the character that angered me the most was Sienna. That’s no fault on Sienna, it was simply how she was written. Brown went to a lot of trouble to create Sienna; most of his other characters were given cursory background dumps but Sienna was given entire chapters dedicated to her perspective and history. And the more background you share with your readers, the more you focus and relate to that character. And the more that character doesn’t seem to make sense, the more frustrating it is for readers.
The only person whose behaviour made any sense was Robert Langdon and that’s because Robert is basically Dan Brown 2.0.
Compounding to this problem, Brown has a very weak understanding of how people who are not art historians employed at fancy universities interact in the real world. The conversations don’t seem to flow right, unless Langdon launches into one of his many art history lectures. I cringed when I watched Sienna flirt with some teenagers because no teenager would be impressed by her flirtations. I also had to skip the sex scenes, not because I’m a puritan, but because they were so awkward and stupid.
And I hated how it ended. Brown is trying to make transhumanism more grandiose and important than it really is, but that’s classic Brown to blow things out of proportion and using information as it suits him, not in its correct context.
And apologies for spoilers but this was also the first ending where Brown almost justifies what the Big Bad was doing, which I assume he did to give his book grey morality and depth. However, this in itself failed horribly. It really cheapened the story and when you force readers to think more critically about ‘Inferno’, it just served to highlight all of his additional writing flaws. If he had simply stuck to his usual routine of ‘Good versus Bad’ with a healthy dose of Good Triumphing, this book would have been less painful.
But here are some things I did like.
I liked the art history lessons, and they are one of my favourite things about the Robert Langdon series. I know they come across as self-absorbed and just an opportunity for Brown to show off how much he really knows. They’re also overly exaggerated to emphasise certain points but I treat them like a jumping board to other points of interest for me, for example, I wouldn’t mind learning more about Dante’s Divine Comedy.
And I know everyone mocks Brown’s writing style but I’m exceptionally fond of his bemused social commentaries on his surroundings; I think it’s here that’s he’s being most honest about his opinions:
After listing the vast array of famous composers, artists, and authors who had created works based on Dante’s epic poem, Langdon scanned the crowd. “So tell me, do we have any authors here tonight?”
Nearly one-third of the hands went up. Langdon stared out in shock. Wow, either this is the most accomplished audience on earth, or this e-publishing thing is really taking off.
And this sharp jab at modern technology:
Langdon had no idea what language the woman spoke, but the global proliferation of iPhones, iPads, and iPods had resulted in a vocabulary as universally understood as the male/female symbols that graced restrooms around the world.
And for some reason, I can’t stop laughing at the end of the following sentence, because I can almost hear the slight pause and the perfect comedic timing in my head:
Sienna gave Langdon a surprised look, but Langdon had toured enough churches worldwide to know that baptismal fonts almost always afforded their priests easy access to emergency swaddling cloths – the unpredictable ability of infants’ bladders a universal risk of christening
But here is where Brown has infused his idiosyncrasies completely and wholly into the story and into his protagonist:
As they approached the train station, the passed the Grand Hotel Baglioni, which often hosted events for an art conference Langdon attended every year. Seeing it, Langdon realized he was about to do something he had never before done in his life.
I’m leaving Florence without visiting the David.
The reason why I keep coming back to the Robert Landgon series despite Brown’s glaring faults as a writer, is that I like that Brown doesn’t take the whole thing seriously. But he’s hurt himself by pushing an ending where the antagonist isn’t condemned. If you don’t like Dan Brown’s writing style, don’t read this because it will not change your mind. If you do like this series, I’d still read it but I wouldn’t buy it new.
On Another Note
I was getting worried for a second because I was past halfway and I still hadn’t encountered any descriptions of Langdon’s appearances. And then I got to Chapter 61:
Langdon was a tall man, with urbane good looks and a deep voice. His clothing at the moment, Sinskey had to assume, was his classroom attire – a tweed jacket, khaki slacks, and loafers – which made sense considering the man had essentially been scooped off his campus with no warning. He also looked younger and far more fit than she’d imagine, which only served to remind Elizabeth of her own age. I could almost be his mother.
Just to remind everyone, this is what Dan Brown looks like:
I will never, ever, ever be bored of this indulgent self-insertion fanfiction writing. It is my sole motivation for reading the Robert Langdon series.
Look it’s all in good fun. And who amongst us hasn’t imagined themselves saving the world with our highly obscure knowledge in improbable situations? Even XKCD has dedicated some cartoons to this: