It's been 700 odd years since Dante traveled through hell. Since then you'd expect things to have changed a bit even in Hell. This book is the account of an agnostic sci-fi writer's own journey down through the circles of Hell seeking his own escape/redemption.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are great writers in their own right, together they're just brilliant. I can't imagine any other author/s that could have the guts to do a follow up to Dante (except maybe Mark Twain). I had no idea what the book was about aside from the fact that Niven and Pournelle wrote it and it must be good. I thought the book was:
~ about a world of high temperatures and the creatures there
~ the earth's core
~ a building or something else on fire
~ creatures who survive in space and live in and around stars.
Not once did it enter my mind that the book's title meant entirely that: "Inferno". Dante's hell was all well and good for the 12th century but in the book we see that there's been some developments in hell itself... some sins have become obsolete, we've invented some new ones of our own, and several whole new takes on the standard 7 deadly sins.
Now being agnostic myself, I could relate pretty well to the character. I also liked the interpretation of Hell's purpose within the Catholic structure... and strangely (or perhaps maybe not) this interpretation made a whole lot more sense to me than the one that the Catholic church has been preaching. Basically, within the book, Hell is just another barrier/test a soul had to surmount in order to merit heaven. Bible Hell is inescapable and forever, Dante's Hell is peopled by souls who do not want to get out and are punished forever, but this Hell (Hell 2.0?) provides the chance for the damned to change. The punishment is still there; for every sin a corresponding punishment and several new ones have been added and old sins reinterpreted, but there is Hope, something seriously lacking in the standard Bible Hell.
This being based on Dante's journey it wouldn't be complete without the characters meeting some people of note, I ain't telling who exactly they meet but it seems the authors have several people (or class of sinners) in mind.
In the circle for the Heretics who could they mean by ~
AC: "A science fiction writer who lied about being a science-fiction writer because hr got more money that way. He wrote whole novels in baby talk, with sixth-grade drawings in them, and third-grade science, and he new better." ~
B: "If I judge rightly by the size of his tomb, he must have founded his own religion. And possibly worshipped himself."
AC: "No, they where jokes, sort of. But he did found at least two, not that there were any followers..."
And after seeing a particularly corrupted form in the bolgia of the Sowers of Discord:
~ " He founded a religion that masks as a form of lay psychiatry. Members try to recall previous lives in their presumed animal ancestry. They also recall their own past lives ... and that adds an interesting blackmail angle, because those who hear confession are often more dedicated than honorable."
Loan sharks are also given their very own place as are corrupt defense lawyers.
The ending is also a surprise and the action leading up to it is simply genius.