Book Review – Inferno by Dan Brown

It takes me longer to finish a novel these days.

Back when I was in high school, or even college, I used to devour books at an alarming rate – I could finish a thick novel within two or three days. But that’s also because there were less distractions/responsibilites… these days I have work, household chores, gym.. so I try to squeeze in some reading before bedtime.

When Inferno came out in Malaysian bookstores in late 2013, I wanted to get it so bad. I have all of Dan Brown’s earlier novels: the DaVinci Code was a book I simply could not put down until I finished it (it left me with a void when it ended.. like my best friend just died). The price tag was a whopping RM99++ for a new release, so I said ‘forget about it’. I love books, but my wallet doesn’t allow.

I finally got the book two years later, when the book was going for just RM39.90. Sometimes good things are worth the wait!

Inferno is the fourth book in a series about Robert Langdon, the knowledgeable and lovable college professor who often seems to get caught up in dangerous things and end up having to use his expertise to a) look for extremely important lost treasure and b)avoid bad guys. What I really like about the character is that he’s an academician – unlike many beefy, swashbuckling heroes in novels. He is athletic from swimming, but that’s about it. He doesn’t know kungfu, nor does he have a whip; he can’t jump from high buildings and whatnot, but he is armed with something far more powerful – his knowledge. As an A-class nerd who has never been good at athletics, I can relate to that 😀

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Synopsis: 

Harvard Uni professor Robert Langdon wakes up in Florence, Italy with no recollection of the past few days. He is told by one of the attending doctors, Sienna Brooks, that he narrowly missed being shot in the head by an unknown assailant. A female assassin bursts in and attempts to shoot Langdon, so the two flee to Brook’s apartment. Once there, Langdon discovers he has been carrying a small cylinder with a biohazard sign, along with a mysterious message containing Italian painter Sandro Botticelli’s Map of Hell.

Of course, being a Langdon novel, the map is a clue to something else. Langdon accidentally discovers that Sienna is a child prodigy with extremely high IQ (how convenient – the perfect candidate for when you’re trying to escape from villains!). After putting a call to the US embassy, soldiers storm the building – causing Langdon to believe that his own gov is after him and that he can trust no one. The pair flee the building on a moped into the streets of Florence.

The clue hunt brings them to Dante’s death mask.  Dante was the Italian Renaissance poet who wrote the Divine Comedy, a poem describing his journey through hell (Inferno) and eventually, Paradise. By piecing together bits of info, the pair discover that the whole affair has something to do with Bertrand Zobrist, a brilliant geneticist. Zobrist believes that with overpopulation, the world will eventually collapse due to limited resources, leaving hell on earth similar to Dante’s Inferno – and he plans to release a plague on the world to thin out the human population. The location of the plague’s ground zero is hidden within the clues, and both Langdon and Brooks has to find it (while dodging the soldiers, the organisation that supports Zobrist) before time runs out for humanity.

Verdict: 

I was a tad disappointed with Inferno. But just a smidgen. Storywise, it is similar to all of his other novels – a Langdon-style treasure hunt –  but this time around, Brown takes a bold move by stepping into the realm of science fiction. It is different, not in an entirely bad way, but seems tailored for a blockbuster film (Inferno has been made into a film by the way, scheduled to release in Oct 2016). Of course, it is hard not to compare it to his earlier series. Inferno lacks the brilliant originality of the DaVinci Code. At times, it feels quite… lazy and things have a way of being too convenient for our college professor.

At the same time, Langdon’s amnesia was a nice touch to create a more challenging environment – with no memory, he is groping in the dark to find answers, along with the reader. Why are people chasing him? What important message is he carrying? There is not one, but TWO plot twists at the ending which is… believable, but just barely.

Throughout the novel, as per his previous works, Brown describes the places in detail – taking the readers on a visual journey through words. As Langdon and Brooks race through Florence and later Venice, the description of the buildings and popular historical monuments took me back to when I visited Europe after my post graduation studies (ah, nostalgia!)

The novel raises a very good question about overpopulation, a prominent theme in the story. It is a real problem that has no easy solutions. As Brooks asks Langdon at one point : “If you could flip a switch to wipe out half of the human population, would you?” By doing so, you save the species from extinction, but you might kill your family and friends by flipping the switch.

The way it is, our resources will deplete very soon if the population continues to grow. And that is an extremely scary thought.

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Score: 7/10. Not his best book, but not bad either, especially towards the end.

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

 

Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

We’re almost coming to an end of our Vietnam trip! It has been an amazing few days in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, exploring the rich sights, smells and sounds of a country full of heritage, culture and beautiful natural scenery. On our last day in HCMC before flying back to Kuala Lumpur, we managed to squeeze in a little sightseeing at the Reunification Palace. 

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Our bus dropped us off right in front of the palace, and we were greeted by the sight of a beautiful, well-kept green park with tall, shady trees. These were planted by the French during their colonial rule of Vietnam – doesn’t it resemble a lovely European garden? The trees were picked specifically for their aesthetics and their ability to withstand Vietnam’s scorching tropical heat in the sumer.

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Right across the road is where we are headed – the Reunification Palace. Built on the site of the former Norodom Palace, the building was the residence and office of the South Vietnamese President during the Vietnam war. It was also where the war ended after North Vietnamese troops stormed the gates with a battle tanker.

There were lots of tourists and locals milling around the lawn. We were led by our guide, Mai, for a tour of the building.

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Inside, we got to see the well-preserved rooms used by the South Vietnamese president during his short reign. Some of the rooms were very grand. (Above) A meeting room where the president would meet with officials and delegates, equipped with microphones.

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Another official room with soft red carpets and comfy looking chairs. The designs were distinctively influenced by Chinese and Vietnamese culture.

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The President’s office itself was simple and no-frills. There was a huge wooden desk and a large painting behind the seat. In another corner there was a small table with high backed chairs for guests. An emergency exit led to secret underground bunkers, which we will be exploring very soon.

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View from the balcony where the President and important people would make appearances to the crowd below.

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Dining area for the lady of the house who would have guests of her own – wives and children of the ministers and foreign dignitaries. There was also an entertainment room equipped with the latest technology for that era, a chess and games spot to pass the time while the men discussed important affairs.SAM_2392-tile

The most interesting part of the tour was the underground war bunkers, which included a room for tactical discussions. There was a fading, yellowing list of ally troops plastered against one side of the wooden-walled room. Large maps behind glass displays were also well preserved. One of the tour guides explained that the president and important ministers/staff would be holed up down here during emergencies, running the government from beneath the ground and issuing orders.

(above) Telegraph and communications station. Bulky grey machinery such as typewriters and telegraph machines were kept here.

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We traverse deeper into the bunkers. This area was lined with steel plated walls and echoes reverberated down its narrow corridors. The white flourescent lights flickered overhead. I wondered if there were ghosts of old Vietnamese officers here, still issuing commands for their ghostly comrades in a war they’ve lost decades ago.

It must have been terrifying to have the lights flicker on and off while battles raged on above their heads, the ceiling shaking and sounding as if it would collapse any moment.

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I wouldn’t want to be stuck down here for more than 15 minutes – there was a claustrophobic sense of being trapped, of not knowing night from day, of being completely cut off from the outside world even though the surface was only a few dozen feet away.

The trip to the Palace was definitely an interesting insight into Vietnam’s rich but sad history. It was like a ‘journey’ of seeing how the South Vietnamese president lived, where he worked, to how it all ended ‘underground’ when the North Vietnamese army attacked. A worthwhile visit if you’re in Ho Chi Minh City.

REUNIFICATION PALACE 

135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Phone: (848) 8223652 – 8290634 – 82941

Opening hours (Daily) : 730am – 1130am, 1pm – 5pm

Entrance: VND20,000