Friday, August 16, 2013

Inferno Smoulders Beneath The Waters

Robert Langdon
Book 4
By Dan Brown

Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

"The darkest places in Hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis."

Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon awakens in a hospital in the middle of the night. Disoriented and suffering from a head would, he recalls nothing of the last thirty-six hours, including how he got there... or the origin of the macabre object that his doctors discover hidden in his belongings.

Langdon's world soon erupts into chaos, and he finds himself on the run in Florence with a stoic young woman, Sienna Brooks, whose clever maneuvering saves his life. Langdon quickly realizes that he is in possession of a series of disturbing codes created by a brilliant scientist—a genius whose obsession with the end of the world is matched only by his passion for one of the most influential masterpieces ever written—Dante Alighieri's dark epic poem
The Inferno.

Racing through such timeless locations as the Palazzo Vecchio, the Boboli Gardens, and the Duomo, Langdon and Brooks discover a network of hidden passageways and ancient secrets, as well as a terrifying new scientific paradigm that will be used either to vastly improve the quality of life on earth... or to devastate it.

In his most compelling and thought-provoking novel to date, Dan Brown has raised the bar yet again.
Inferno is a sumptuously entertaining read—a novel that will captivate readers with the beauty of classical Italian art, history, and literature...while also posing provocative questions about the role of cutting-edge science in our future.

The latest installment in the Robert Langdon series may not talk about the secret life of Jesus, plots of Popes, or hidden rituals of the Freemasons, but don't let that lull you into thinking it has nothing provocative within. Rather than chasing questions about the hidden past, this book looks toward the future of humanity, posing questions about morality and the greater good, all while following the clues of a mad scientist who threatens the world from beyond the grave. With the clock ever ticking, Langdon may have finally met his intellectual match.

Robert Langdon is, and has always been, very much the intellectual everyman. He doesn't go out of his way to find trouble, nor does he hold a very exciting position. But somehow, some person in power always drags him into a puzzle where lives are at stake and the clock is working against them. It's as if he's the Arthur Dent of time-sensitive historically-based terrorist threats. And frankly, I found him boring. He's not witty or clever in the way he speaks, he's not particularly dashing in looks, he's polite, he's knowledgeable (almost unbelievably so), and, as I said, he isn't one to seek out trouble. So we're left with an Indiana Jones stand-in who solves puzzles without bashing skulls.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the nerd getting the spotlight for a change. But I do find it hard to believe that every person he meets (especially the women) are instantly charmed by him. It happens every time; he always has an attractive woman hanging onto his arm to marvel at his intellect and scream at the dangerous parts. But whereas Indiana Jones had pure eye-candy trailing him, Langdon somehow manages to charm extremely intelligent women who still drool at his every word. Okay, I'll give the ladies more credit than that, but I'm still perplexed at how such a dry (albeit polite and knowledgeable) personality can garner so much instant affection.

If there's one thing that tries to balance Langdon out, it's his inevitable trusting a bad guy. It happened before in all three novels, it happens again here. Some deceptions are shorter than others, but it never fails that Langdon is trusting someone he shouldn't with crucial information. I guess if he's so smart about everything else, his one weakness would be in reading people. And yet, it never seems to leave that much of an impact.

Which leads me to the major flaw I have with the Langdon series as a whole: everything always plays a little too perfectly. Each piece falls into place at the exact right moment, every character acts and reacts perfectly, Langdon always has the answers or knows the exact person to talk to, he always falls for someone's deception/trap until it's almost too late, and despite having no training or reason for it, he's always in the middle of the action-packed finale so that he can get the final motives. It's all a well-orchestrated plot, but after reading through four of these adventures, it's getting easier to notice the flailing baton conducting the symphony.

Not that I don't marvel at the work as I'm reading it. I always enjoy the complexity of the puzzles, learning new things, watching the characters and the plot come together piece by piece. Brown certainly does a good job of pulling you into the action, the chase, the intrigue, and the scenery such that putting the book down becomes more of a chore than wading through the 450 pages. It's really only after the action lets up and you're given a moment to reflect that all the conveniences, the fantasy, and the effort becomes visible. It's a fun ride while it lasts, but the adrenaline buzz might leave you wishing for more.

Hopefully that's where the book's many, many questions will come in.
Is humanity getting too big for its own good? Is it moral to cut off the leg to save the body? Would you kill half the population to save the species? Should governments put a limit on reproduction in order to stem overpopulation, even at direct opposition to religions against contraception? Is genetic engineering ethical, moral, too close to playing God?
These are only some of the questions that you might enjoy discussing amongst friends, enemies, and book groups.

But what I found most interesting about Inferno as opposed to previous Langdon novels, was that many of the questions posed above weren't answered. Certain characters came down on one side or the other, but most of the main cast either didn't have an opinion, or simply didn't voice it. It was very much a story about grey territory and ambiguity. When it comes to history, events either did or didn't happen, it's very cut and dry, but in regards to morality, ethics, and looking toward the unknown of the future, it's much harder to give solid answers. I found this both interesting and a little lazy on the part of the author, especially when it came to key characters not knowing what side to fall on. I would have liked a little more solidity from them, even if it didn't necessarily reflect Dan Brown's own opinion. Not a huge failing, but a little disappointing.

Overall, Dan Brown's Inferno was an exciting ride through historical puzzles and modern intrigue that any Robert Langdon fan won't want to miss. A thriller that skirts the line between reality and science fiction, I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys chasing down clues and solving puzzles a la Indiana Jones. As with all the Langdon books, Inferno relied a lot on visuals. Descriptions of architecture, paintings, maps, and historical objects were all wonderful, and I can see a visual companion (or movie) being extremely helpful down the line. It does contain some violence and very polarizing moral questions, so you may want to take that into consideration before diving in. A great discussion book which is sure to leave you turning pages well into the night, you won't want to leave Inferno smouldering on the shelves too long.

Approximate Reading Time: 8 hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Paul Michael
Length: 17.2 Hours
Listened at 2.3x Speed

A well-done recording. I hate to say middle of the road, but I can't seem to recall anything particularly noteworthy about it. It escorted me through the story with no hiccups, bumps, or bruises, but it also didn't leave much to remember it by. I will say that I applaud Mr. Michael (and the production team) for powering through the many, many foreign languages that Dan Brown peppers through most of his books. Latin, Italian, and even Turkish made appearances now and again, and even though most phrases were translated, it was still a nice experience to hear the original words and marvel at the adeptness of the reader's tongue.

In short, a very understated recording in that it never distracted from the story, but also didn't give much of its own flavor to remember it by. I'm not sure if it was the writing itself or the way in which it was read that made the characters un-emotive. It will get you from beginning to end, but it might not be the best for long car rides if you're prone to drifting off. Surprising that a recording of a thriller would leave me so unenthused, but there it is.