KokkieH Reviews Secrets of Inferno – In the Footsteps of Dante and Dan Brown by Dan Burstein and Arne de Keijzer

Review based on free ebook received from the publisher (and in fact my first-ever read-to-review).

Secret of Inferno cover
Jacket design by Barbara Aronica-Buck
Copyright © 2013 by Squibnocket Partners LLC
Used with permission

Secrets of Inferno is a reader’s guide to the journey Dan Brown took us all on in Inferno.  The book gives readers the “back story” on particular plot points, Dante references, symbols, historical events, philosophy, art, music, and architectural works that Brown wrapped into his story.  It is also an intellectually enriching, intriguing, fresh and fun look at Dante, the Divine Comedy, the world of ideas circulating in Florence on the cusp of the Renaissance, and the relevance of those ideas to our lives and our world today.  In addition, the book turns to some of the leading experts in their field to address some of Inferno’s more provocative notions, including transhumanism and population control. – Book description from publisher’s website.

Dan Burstein and Arne de Keijzer have been unearthing the facts behind Dan Brown’s fiction since 2004 when their first book in the Secrets-series, Secrets of the Code, spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list.  I have not read any of their previous offerings, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading Secrets of Inferno in which they analyse Dan Brown’s Inferno (read my review of that novel here) which came out in May of this year.

Before I get into the review a bit of full disclosure.  I’ve always scorned at the idea of companion-books based on a work of fiction.  When C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia experienced an upsurge in popularity with the release of the first film Christian bookshops were flooded with books explaining all the parallels between Lewis’s fiction and the Biblical tale.  I saw it merely as people without their own ideas trying to make money off Lewis’s work. (In case you were wondering, I’m not a fan of fan-fiction either.)

Then I started noticing the various books about Dan Brown’s and other authors’ fiction.  Needless to say, I was not drawn to these books at all and left to myself I would probably never have bought Secrets of Inferno had I noticed it in a bookshop.  Luckily, just like with Brown’s Inferno, I received it for free, but unlike that book, with this one I was pleasantly surprised.

If you think this book simply consists of Brown-bashing, think again.  Burstein and De Keijzer have assembled a team of experts from various fields touched upon in Brown’s Inferno who manage to give a very balanced view of his novel while also giving readers more insight into their respective areas of expertise.  There is a bit of Brown-bashing, though, if you’re into that…

The very first essay by Burstein makes it very clear that Dante and his Divine Comedy will play a big role in the coming discussions, and almost the entire first half of the book is devoted to this topic.  Aside from Burstein himself, various experts on Renaissance literature, art and history give their take on Dante’s epic poem and Brown’s use of it in his novel.

What struck me about this section was the passion with which almost every contributor spoke of the Commedia.  Needless to say, some take issue with Brown’s treatment of this work, but then there was also the highly enjoyable and interesting essay by Professor Glenn W. Erickson who argues that one could very well see Brown’s Inferno as a modern parody of Dante’s, which would imply that Brown actually understands it much better than it would appear at first.

The second section focuses on some of the issues raised by Brown in his novel.  It mainly consists of interviews with experts from the fields of population studies, future studies, emerging technologies and epidemiology and virology, as well as two influential members of the transhumanist movement, Humanity+.

While most of the interviewees seem to disagree with Brown’s interpretation of humanity’s current state, De Keijzer also interviews Paul Ehrlich, author of the controversial book, The Population Bomb, who might very well have served as partial inspiration for Brown’s antagonist, Bertrand Zobrist.  While still mostly interesting, I did not enjoy this section as much as the first, but that’s probably just because the interview-format doesn’t really appeal to me.  However, this section is invaluable for those interested in the actual science which lies behind the fiction.

Section three contains just two essays.  The first is by David A. Shugarts, Dan Brown expert and a regular contributor to the Secrets series.  Shugarts climbs into Brown’s Inferno with gloves off and highlights some of the things Brown either missed or ignored regarding his locations and their histories, as well as factual errors, writing slip-ups and inconsistencies in the novel.  The second essay is by Cheryl Helm who shares how she joined the treasure hunt to decipher Brown’s clues which he released prior to publication of the novel.  While it was interesting to read, it was a bit abstract for me as my edition of Inferno had a different cover from the one with all the clues.

In the final section we revisit Dante’s Firenze, including some beautiful photographs by Julie O’Connor, before Burstein closes with a final essay where he reflects on the moral message of Brown’s Inferno, that, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis,” as well as some of the other references and allusions Brown makes to both Dante’s culture and his own.

While one or two of the essays might be considered a bit too academic for the average reader, Secrets of Inferno is a relaxing read overall and is well worth the time whether you’ve read Brown’s Inferno or not and whether you’re a fan of Dan Brown or not.  (For Dan Brown fans I should add that this book contains significant spoilers of Brown’s Inferno, so be sure to read that first.)

If you’re not a fan of Dan Brown, Secrets of Inferno will probably not turn you into one, but at the very least it might convince you to read Dante’s Inferno (and Purgatorio and Paradiso), which I think would satisfy Messrs Burstein and De Keijzer.  I know it has convinced me.

Have I piqued your interest?  You can read an excerpt on the website of The Story Plant where you will also find a list of all the contributors as well as links to all the major online retailers stocking this title.

Update:  Since posting this review the Secrets of Inferno blog has also gone live.  Go check it out for more facts on Dante, Florence and Dan Brown.

7 thoughts on “KokkieH Reviews Secrets of Inferno – In the Footsteps of Dante and Dan Brown by Dan Burstein and Arne de Keijzer

  1. My family own a copy of Dan Burstein’s similar analysis of Brown’s ‘Angels and Demons’. I confess that I found Brown’s novel so mind-numbingly stupid in so many ways (not least his representations of particle physics, which were flat out wrong) that I really couldn’t face reading anything more about the topic and set Burstein’s book aside. No criticism of Burstein, of course, the word is ‘collateral damage’, and I know very well how much effort is required to write non-fiction. I really should have another go.


    1. I can really recommend Secrets of Inferno, if only for the section on Dante. He is a remarkably interesting figure and this book has awakened a desire to learn more of him.


  2. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary on our book, Secrets of Inferno. Towards the end of your review you note that,

    “If you’re not a fan of Dan Brown, Secrets of Inferno will probably not turn you into one, but at the very least it might convince you to read Dante’s Inferno (and Purgatorio and Paradiso), which I think would satisfy Messrs Burstein and De Keijzer. I know it has convinced me.”

    As a lifelong Dante enthusiast, I can tell you there is no more satisfying conclusion of the process we engaged in to create this book, than the news that our readers will take new interest in Dante’s Divine Comedy and read it and think about its modern implications for themselves. Let us know what you think as you read Dante! Thanks again for devoting your blog’s attention to our book.

    Dan Burstein
    Co-author, Co-editor, Secrets of Inferno: In the Footsteps of Dante and Dan Brown


    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting on the review. Now I’m really glad I liked the book and wrote a positive review 😉

      I had of course heard of the Divine Comedy before but had never considered reading it until I read Brown’s novel. This book, and your essays in particular convinced me that I must. The two books together also moved Florence to my number one must-see spot should I ever be able to travel to Europe.

      I’m also looking forward to the Secrets of Inferno blog which I hear is launching soon. I’ll be sure to drop by.


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