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Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

Hold up!

See that little date above?

This post was published years ago.

My opinions have changed over time: I think it's quite fun to keep old posts online so that you can see how that has happened. The downside is that there are posts on this site that express views that I now find offensive, or use language in ways I'd never dream of using it today.

I don't believe in airbrushing history, but I do believe that it's important to acknowledge the obvious: some of what I've written in the past has been crap. Some of it was offensive. Some of it was offensively bad. And there's may be some brass among the muck (you can make up your own mind on that).

Some of what I've presented as my own views has been me—wittingly or unwittingly—posturing without having considered all the facts. In a few years, I'll probably think the same about what I'm writing today, and I'm fine with that. Things change. People grow. Society moves forward.

The internet moves on too, which means there might be broken links or embedded content that fails to load. If you're unlucky, that might mean that this post makes no sense at all.

So please consider yourself duly warned: this post is an historical artefact. It's not an exposition of my current views nor a piece of 'content' than necessarily 'works'.

You may now read on... and in most cases, the post you're about to read is considerably shorter than this warning box, so brace for disappointment.

I’ve reviewed several Dan Brown books on this site in the past. As I sat down to write this review, my memory was that I’d always pretty much laid into them with unremitting criticism. In fact, that’s not true. I was rather more positive than I remembered being.

Of Digital Fortress, I said:

One knows what one is getting into when one buys a Dan Brown book … Sometimes, it’s just what you’re after.

Of Angels and Demons, I said:

The storyline is good, and it’s an entertaining book.

Of The Da Vinci Code, I said:

It was a fairly enjoyable book … certainly worth reading, but don’t expect a masterpiece.

Looking through the archives, it seems I never got round to reviewing The Lost Symbol, though I remember – perhaps falsely – that reading it was a bit of a trial.

I mention all of this because I approached Inferno with the expectation that I would hate it. I wanted to be amused by Brown’s crazy use of language, and even crazier use of ideology. I wanted to find myself amused at the predictable structure of a art-themed treasure trail, which Robert Langdon would complete just in the nick of time. I was looking forward to writing a scathing and somewhat amusing one-star review.

But, as I read, I unexpectedly found myself enjoying this book. It isn’t high art by any means: Dan Brown’s amusingly clunky leaden prose retains its knack for destroying any semblance of atmosphere, the plot is described and recapped constantly for those who weren’t paying attention, and many of the events are predictable.

But Brown has fixed some of the problems that detracted from his earlier works. By and large, Brown has avoided having hero Robert Langdon deliver long speeches explaining points of art history when he is supposedly in a race for his life. Instead, these are accommodated through a combination of flashbacks, and through delivery by other characters who have no knowledge of the wider plot. This isn’t rocket science, but it does improve things considerably.

Brown also manages to deliver several plot twists in this volume that aren’t obvious from the start. The plot of his previous books is entirely predictable: not so this volume. This makes it far more engaging.

Yet not all of the problems have been solved. Brown still writes hilariously clunky prose:

He half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.

Brown is still utterly incapable of giving his main characters distinct voices. When he attempts to distinguish the voices of minor characters, he resorts to quite hilarious stereotype:

Sienna, eez Danikova! Where you?! Eez terrible! Your friend Dr. Marconi, he dead! Hospital going craaazy!

And yet, Brown builds an uncharacteristically gripping novel that kept me turning the pages, and had me genuinely surprised by the end. This isn’t a bad effort by any means, and probably reaches the uppermost quartile of “mental chewing-gum” novels.

Inferno is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

Hold up!

See that little date above?

This post was published years ago.

My opinions have changed over time: I think it's quite fun to keep old posts online so that you can see how that has happened. The downside is that there are posts on this site that express views that I now find offensive, or use language in ways I'd never dream of using it today.

I don't believe in airbrushing history, but I do believe that it's important to acknowledge the obvious: some of what I've written in the past has been crap. Some of it was offensive. Some of it was offensively bad. And there's may be some brass among the muck (you can make up your own mind on that).

Some of what I've presented as my own views has been me—wittingly or unwittingly—posturing without having considered all the facts. In a few years, I'll probably think the same about what I'm writing today, and I'm fine with that. Things change. People grow. Society moves forward.

The internet moves on too, which means there might be broken links or embedded content that fails to load. If you're unlucky, that might mean that this post makes no sense at all.

So please consider yourself duly warned: this post is an historical artefact. It's not an exposition of my current views nor a piece of 'content' than necessarily 'works'.

You may now read on... and in most cases, the post you're about to read is considerably shorter than this warning box, so brace for disappointment.

‘Twas the week before Christmas… and doing a normal book review seemed a little anti-festive. So this week, I’m featuring a book by Dan Brown. He’s author who has been pretty universally panned by critics – including me – yet has sold millions of books that “promote spiritual discussion and debate” and act “as a positive catalyst for introspection and exploration of our faith”… according to him, at least. Whether those aims also apply when he’s pretending to be a woman, I’m not sure… at least cross-gender pseudonyms have a decent literary heritage.

So let’s turn our attention to Digital Fortress, Dan Brown’s first solo novel published in 1998. It has the geek factor in abundance – it’s about cryptography, tries to make arguments about government surveillance, and features a massive supercomputer. Given Brown’s ouvre, you’ll not be terribly surprised if I tell you it’s a codebreaking supercomputer. Called TRANSLATR. Yep, Dan Brown was missing out the final vowel years before Flickr and Tubmblr came along. But I digress.

This is a story about a code that TRANSLATR can’t crack, and a blackmail attempt on the back of that. It’s also about a frustratingly dim cryptographer who doesn’t know the etymology of the word “sincere”. And, this being Dan Brown, there’s a “dramatic” scene in a Catholic church. There’s no earthly reason why the scene has to be in a church, but I guess Dan Brown likes writing about them. And it does divert him for a little while from making irritating errors like confusing “bits” and “bytes”.

But, by some distance, the most irritating part of Digital Fortress was the final thirty pages, where the solution to the whole central conundrum of the book was glaringly obvious, and yet apparently the most accomplished cryptographers in the world were unable to work it out. And, despite having earlier demonstrated an intimate knowledge of obscure chemicals like freon (in a series of scenes that couldn’t have screamed “Chekhov’s gun” any louder had the phrase actually been included), the central characters are suddenly unable to recall basic facts about basic elements. For a military organisation, there’s an awful lot of insubordination and fraternisation – relationships which end up looking a bit freakishly incestuous (a fact that the characters appear content to ignore).

Now, without wanting to give the game away, how many top secret military installations do you know of which conduct their business under a glass roof? How many buildings do you know of which feature no emergency exits? How did the designers of a military base for cryptographers not see that securing the doors with passwords might be a little… insecure?

Look, I don’t mind suspending my disbelief to some extent when reading a novel. But the degree of idiocy in this book made me half-expect the final word to be “and it was all just a dream!”

Brown has a line he uses in interviews about readers “getting on the train”, by which I think he’s referring to suspension of disbelief. I sort of see where he’s coming from. I get that he tries to write forceful, driving plots where the facts around the edges don’t really matter. But in this volume in particular, the problems with the plot are so big that, to use his metaphor, my train was derailed. Repeatedly.

In the end, I guess one knows what one is getting into when one buys a Dan Brown book. It’s mind-numbing easy-reading tosh. Sometimes, that’s just what you’re after, just as sometimes, we all have a craving for a pot noodle. But good grief, you’re probably in as much trouble if you think this is good literature as if you think pot noodles are high gastronomy. But heck, it’s Christmas – and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without one star.

If you have a masochistic streak, Digital Fortress is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

Note: Next Wednesday is Boxing Day, when hopefully you’ll be having too much fun to read a book review. So the next one will be published in two weeks, on 2nd January 2013.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Summer Books: Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

Hold up!

See that little date above?

This post was published years ago.

My opinions have changed over time: I think it's quite fun to keep old posts online so that you can see how that has happened. The downside is that there are posts on this site that express views that I now find offensive, or use language in ways I'd never dream of using it today.

I don't believe in airbrushing history, but I do believe that it's important to acknowledge the obvious: some of what I've written in the past has been crap. Some of it was offensive. Some of it was offensively bad. And there's may be some brass among the muck (you can make up your own mind on that).

Some of what I've presented as my own views has been me—wittingly or unwittingly—posturing without having considered all the facts. In a few years, I'll probably think the same about what I'm writing today, and I'm fine with that. Things change. People grow. Society moves forward.

The internet moves on too, which means there might be broken links or embedded content that fails to load. If you're unlucky, that might mean that this post makes no sense at all.

So please consider yourself duly warned: this post is an historical artefact. It's not an exposition of my current views nor a piece of 'content' than necessarily 'works'.

You may now read on... and in most cases, the post you're about to read is considerably shorter than this warning box, so brace for disappointment.

Digital FortressIt’s the third week of this series of book reviews, and given that the two featured so far have featured uncontained vitriol towards the Satan of modern literature, Dan Brown, it seems only right that I should “get it out of my system” by doing a whole review of one of his “novels”. And so, without further ado, this week’s selecion has to be Digital Fortress.

As with all of Dan Brown’s “works”, Digital Fortress is by no means deep, considered, or erudite. It’s a shallow page-turner riddled with predictability.

The final thirty pages of Digital Fortress were, perhaps, the worst of Dan Brown’s “writing” I’ve had the misfortune to experience: The solution to the book’s central conundrum was glaringly obvious, and yet apparently the most accomplished cryptographers in the world were unable to work it out: Despite having earlier demonstrated an intimate knowledge of other obscure chemicals, they are unable to recall basic facts about the most famous of all elements.

In many ways, that’s the least of the plot holes: Why on earth would one build a glass-roofed dome to house a top secret military computer? Given the clear risk of dangerous chemicals sending this top secret computer into meltdown at any moment, why not have emergency exits in the highly secure glass dome? Why secure offices in a department housing the most accomplished cryptographers using security barriers protected with passwords, rather than, say, keys? Why, in a military organisation, is there so much unpunished insubordination? Why, in a piece based around NSA cryptography, does Mr Brown still feel the need to shoehorn in a scene set in a Catholic Church?

It’s all a little bit bizarre. There are so many gaping plot holes, I often wondered if I was about to plunge into one never to be seen again.

Mr Brown even throws some nonsensical romances into the mix, apparently attempting to build interest into which of his flimsy 2D characters would fall in love with which other. Without wishing to give away too much, the whole affair is verging on freakishly incestuous, yet that fact is utterly ignored.

Yet, my most major problem with this “story” is that it is genuinely gripping: It’s difficult to stop reading, because it is so utterly trashily terrible. It’s impossible to resist the lure of reading on to find out when characters are finally going to catch up with the bleedin’ obvious, and to enjoy skirting round the edges of another humorously improbable plot hole.

And so bizarrely, frustratingly, and somewhat disappointingly, I find it impossible not to recommend this “book” – at least on some level. Whilst it’s self-evidently one of the most terrible “works” of modern “literature” my eyes have ever wasted their time scanning, it was actually – secretly – quite entertaining.

Perhaps, in the end, provision of entertainment is the most important function of any novel. It’s just that I find it very hard to truly enjoy any book whose central storyline is rubbish, even if it is gripping. But maybe I’m elitist.

Hey-ho, I guess the best I can say is that you really need to read the thing to know whether or not you’ll like it – which, I guess, is true of any book, and leaves you no better informed than you were at the start of this review… Ain’t blogging great?

» Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop

This review was originally posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in April 2005, and has been re-versioned for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

This post was filed under: Summer Books, , , .




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