Review: ‘Inferno’ by Dan Brown

InfernoThree things are clear about Dan Brown’s novels: The reviews don’t matter because fans are more addicted to them than drugs. Years from now, his fiction will comprise the body of work most-often associated with the spate of globe-spanning puzzle novels linking historic events to  modern day criminal plots, even though the form was pioneered by Katherine Neville in The Eight. And, while his style continues to evolve, every book he writes will forever be chasing the sensation of The Da Vinci Code.

Inferno is another Robert Langdon thriller that mixes exotic locations (Florence and Venice) and ancient symbols and texts (Dante and The Divine Comedy) with a world shaking danger (the threat of a plague). Brown uses an interesting plot device here: Landgon wakes up in a Florence hospital with a head wound and retrograde amnesia. He has no idea why he’s in Florence and who may or may not be trying to kill him. (It becomes clear before he leaves the hospital room that somebody is.)

He must simultaneously solve the puzzle of symbols linking a prospective plague threat from a genetic engineer concerned about reducing the world’s population and the personal puzzle about his nightmarish dreams and how they’re connected to the story’s prospective heroes and villains. While solving the puzzle, Langdon and Dr. Sienna Brooks find numerous secret doorways and panels, life threatening moments and people who are determined to stop them for reasons as yet unknown.

In the past, Brown has been criticized by using endless historical and cultural monologues from Langdon and others to fill secondary characters in on the importance of historical events and their related symbolism. Obviously, this device was used as a way of telling the readers how centuries old stories and symbols played into the solution of an urgent problem of the present day.

Brown has toned down those monologues a great deal in Inferno and provided dialogue that more naturally fits into a story with one chase scene after another. You will no longer find five-hundred-word Langdon lectures being delivered while the bad guys are only seconds away. You will find a lot of Florence and Venice travelogue.

Brown describes the streets, museums, and ancient buildings in exhaustive detail. Imagine being chased across a town by the bad guys while having the luxury to notice every building, monument and street corner along the way, including those that don’t pertain to the story. The descriptions slow down the action but are easy to skip.

The descriptions also serve the plot because they tie into Dante and to the mad scientist who’s a Dante aficionado. The travelogues allow physical time to pass in the novel so that Langdon will have an opportunity to process the symbolism as well as the returning snippets of his fragmented memory.

Brown has done a good job stirring the characters into an ever-changing  mix of people who–at any given moment–might be trustworthy or untrustworthy. The characters’ motivations and allegiances aren’t engraved in stone. The novel’s over-arching themes are the dangers of overpopulation to humankind’s survival and whether or not one should use cutting-edge advances in genetic engineering to “fix” the problem before Mother Nature solves it by purging the planet of a lot of people.

Since the themes are real, they add a compelling dose of prospective reality to a story filled with symbols, iconography, Italian art and architecture, and the multiple meanings of Dante’s levels of hell. For Langdon and the other characters, a real or figurative hell may well be the story’s destination. Brown, I suspect, hopes readers will ponder whether hell is also Earth’s destiny.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels, including the recently release story of love and destiny, “The Seeker.”



Review: ‘The Divine Comics’ by Philip Lee Williams

“In a great comedy, we are always made aware of the darkness in life, but the ending must be happy or it’s not a comedy. A man’s journey to wholeness is therefore most rightly named ‘The Comedy,’ for the end is the final awareness of that love which is the joy of the universe.” – Helen M. Luke in “Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’”

Philip Lee Williams’ magnificent “The Divine Comics: a Vaudeville Show in Three Acts” begins and ends with Whitman Bentley, a young man with gangly legs who’s been dreaming again, perhaps to escape the fact that among the eccentrics at The School of Music, he “may be the weakest, torn with every phobia in the catalogue.”

Since the novel’s back-cover informs readers that Williams’ novel reimagines and updates Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” we know going in that Whitman Bentley will, to put it crudely, go to hell and back, after—as Dante might put it—the eccentric second-string symphony conductor awakes to find himself in a dark wood where the right road is wholly lost and gone.

En route to the ending of “The Divine Comics,” (which is pure poetry and white rose wonderment) the reader—as well as Williams’ huge cast of dysfunctional characters—may sense that that there is no right road and that the trickster gods (known as the Divine Comics, aka “The Lords of the Inner Kingdom”) are plagued with every manner of dark joke in the catalogue. Ah, but the chapters in “The Divine Comics” are called skits for a reason.

The novel’s three sections, “Fire,” “Earth” and “Air,” match Dante’s “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso.” “Fire” focuses on a school of music, “Earth” on the followers of a lady who takes her friends on a cruise to France where they will be well paid to treat her as their queen, and “Air” on a mixed group of artists, politicians and scientists who have been assembled as honored fellows at a rich man’s Rocky Mountain retreat.

Each troop of trekkers has its own farcical road of trials, puns, groaners, riffs, improvisations on every imaginable subject under heaven, and assorted terrors to follow, complete with a guide, until all the skits merge into one with the novel’s almost-overpowering crescendo of an ending. Like “The Divine Comedy,” Williams’ “The Divine Comics” has four levels of meaning: literal, allegorical, moral and mystical. While the novel has great depth and a near-infinite number of overt and covert references to music, popular culture, history and religion, it is a very readable and entertaining story.

At this point in the review, Dante purists may be wondering if any of the groups in the story is guided by Virgil. No, but there’s a good reason for that. Former used car salesman Al Carswell, who hosts Whitman Bentley’s group in the vestibule of hell, says that “the Big V” isn’t around much. “Last people he brought through was a bunch of Jaycees who died of ptomaine in Butte, Montana. After that, he turned sort of sour on things, don’t you know?”

Williams has done one hell of a job updating hell, purgatory and paradise for today’s savvy seekers of a great story and/or the white rose. Observers—such as the readers of this novel—left standing  in the dark wood for eternity will sooner or later shout, as James Joyce might put it, “Here Comes Everybody,” for Dante’s epic poem and Williams’ update some 690 years later are both masterpieces describing the human condition. This is not to say everybody must use “The Divine Comics” as a personal heaven and hell travel guide. After all, how will we know at any moment whether we’re in or out of Whitman Bentley’s dream? As Williams says many times in the novel as an author commenting on the story he’s telling, “It’s a question well worth our attention.”

“The Divine Comics” is, indeed a comedy. But rest assured that before you reach that happy ending, The Lords of the Inner Kingdom, will capture your attention and then leave you breathlessly rolling in the aisles at a Vaudeville show filled with enough black humor to last a lifetime, and then some.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the satire “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire”