Dungeon Born – Dakota Krout (Review)

After being brutally murdered by necromancers, Cal returns to consciousness as a dungeon core – a sentient lump of rock with the power to shape its immediate surroundings. Paired with Dani, a will-o’-the-wisp, Cal sets about stocking his dungeon with monsters and traps so that he can consume incautious adventurers and grow his power.

If the above paragraph sounds familiar to you, then thank you for being such a loyal & observant reader, and apologies for basically re-using the opening paragraph from another review. It’s not laziness though – honest – I just want to begin with the point that this book is incredibly similar to Jonathan Smidt’s Bone Dungeon. Plot point by plot point and archetype by archetype, the books follow the exact same pattern.

I’m not saying that Bone Dungeon (published three years later) plagiarised Dungeon Born, just that both books exist in a genre that seemingly allows very little variation. Beat-for-beat, these books are near identical, and I doubt that my memories of the two will remain very distinct. Both focus on the flirtatious/symbiotic relationship between a male murder victim (now rock) and his sparkly female guide. Both rocks go through the same stages of spatial & emotional development, and both books slowly shift focus from the dungeon itself to a callow adventurer with a good heart, who eventually has to fight with the dungeon in order to face a greater threat. In almost all the ways that matter, these stories are the same.

Other than a few minor differences in flavour, the two books could exist in the same world. Magic is divided into broadly equivalent categories, and while the social makeup of the two settings varies a little (elves play a slightly greater role in Dungeon Born, for example), it’s all standard cookie-cutter fantasy in much the same vein as the first half of any Final Fantasy game. These are class Western Medieval fantasy worlds, focused around dungeon-diving and the pursuit of ever more powerful equipment: churches heal people, restaurants serve roast beast, and the Adventurers’ Guild is a power to be reckoned with.

Dungeon Born is a litRPG, with everything that comes with that. Characters are explicitly ranked and everyone is aware of the numeric gradings that seemingly govern everything. Where this book does have an edge over Bone Dungeon is that – while still very front-and-centre – there is a little bit more of a veil drawn over the video game mechanics in Dungeon Born. People don’t spend anything like as much time talking about experience points or named skills. I find that whole aspect of litRPGs to be rather wearying, so I did appreciate the somewhat subtler touch. The ideal, obviously, is that not every complexity is reduced to a numerical score or a named ability, but hardly ever mentioning those scores and having at least a somewhat convincing justification for them is better than nothing.

I struggled to care about the characters here – they’ve got goals and meaningful relationships, etc., but the major traits shared by the main characters are petulance and callowness. There’s little nuance or complexity to things – moral hooks get thrown out and discarded all over the place – and characters slip without transition between discrete emotional states. The author is aware that complexity in characters is often a good thing, but has instead given them variety.

The plot moves jerkily, with events seemingly unfolding based more on distance through the book than any chain of causality. In common with a lot of Dungeon Core novels, the scope increases wildly from chapter to chapter with no sense of restraint or thought to the effects of character actions. More and more powerful artefacts are sprinkled around and – while Dungeon Born pays lip service to the idea that such things would have repercussions – nothing really comes of the various earth-shattering events. I get that the book is a power fantasy, and just immediately getting cool stuff is a core driver of this entire genre, but it’s not particularly compelling; I like wish fulfilment fiction as much as the next person, but for a narrative to be at all engaging, success against the odds has to be somehow earnt. A detective’s slow explanation of the crime or a hero’s blade undoing dark enchantments is satisfying because of the path they took to get there – there’s no drama or tension if a problem is solved flashily the moment it appears.

Bone Dungeon also suffers from the problem of power creep – characters get stronger every few pages with no sign of slowing – but it handles it rather better. The threats grow in scale and immediacy with the protagonist, and even right at the climax, defeat seems possible. Dungeon Born isn’t prepared to really challenge its characters, which means that the rapid increases in power are cosmetic rather than meaningful, and thus hard to be engrossed by. This might just mean that the genre is bad match for me – this kind of constant success does seem to be what litRPG readers crave – but it does really sap my enjoyment of a book when everything just feels so weightless.

In summation, there’s very little to choose between Dungeon Born and Bone Dungeon. Personally, I think Bone Dungeon is slightly better – a tighter narrative, more meaningful stakes – but that’s the only real difference. Both books tell the same narrative, and that narrative is one of aesthetically-evil wish fulfilment in a standard fantasy world. If you are looking for books about sentient rocks in a video game universe, then there is not much to choose between these two. If you’re not looking for books about sentient rocks in a video game universe, then who can blame you?

Buy Dungeon Born here.

The Swarm – Arthur Herzog (Review)

Everyone has heard of killer bees – a mutant strain of honeybees known for their aggression, killing and attacking humans without provocation. This book, and the film it inspired, are part of the reason for that. In reality, although killer bees are aggressive, they kill only a few people a year.

In The Swarm, two people are dead by page 6. Not content with this initial assault, the bees embark on a campaign of aggression, culminating in their (successful) occupation and pacification of New York. And these aren’t even normal killer bees – they’re a mutation on top of a mutation, with all sorts of new deadly tricks.

This is a very strange book. It doesn’t really belong amongst all the other books where mutated monsters attack, because it’s not focused on the personal, or even really on the monster. This is a book about societal collapse, about humanity’s failures in the face of a threat that it doesn’t fully understand. As the bee menace grows, America falls apart, and a lot of that fall is entirely self-inflicted – people ignore sensible advice, choose the wrong hills to die on and then actually do. Not to be all current-events-y, but I found the human response to the external threat here a lot more well observed than I think I would have felt last year.

While there are central characters, it’s a stretch to call any of them a true protagonist; the viewpoint shifts around frequently, and is most commonly detached, with the tone of a historian. The most arguably-central of characters is a rather bland scientist who is not actually involved in much of the action, but who thinks a lot about it. Characterisation occurs, but lop-sidedly; there’s a romantic subplot, and various evolving interpersonal subplots, but the beats are in all the wrong places: the character side of things starts strong, gets dropped for a while, and then returns only to fizzle out well before the end.

Other than the giant bees attacking New York, this reads like non-fiction – the narration is dry, clinical, passionless. Bee behaviour is reported without any real attempt to draw out emotion from you, and the focus is on the mechanics of the invasion, not its consequences. This is the book I would expected to be reading if bees actually had attacked the USA.

The impression of non-fiction is strengthened by the diagrams and references scattered throughout. I was unable to locate the specific papers referred to, but I think that was a failure of search engines – for the few examples I tried, I found that those researchers did exist and were writing on the right topics at the right time. Herzog has clearly done a vast amount of research into bee biology and behaviour, and it’s often hard to distinguish exactly where the narrative shifts away from reality.

The plot moves in fits and starts, with moments of rapid progression interspersed with long, detailed descriptions of beekeeping processes or – in one extremely bizarre passage – the full narration of a minor character’s interaction with a computer. Every line of text displayed on his screen is reported as he muses about the correct inputs and slowly researches an unknown chemical; it might be the most tortuously stretched-out narration that I’ve ever read. When he finally finds a plot-relevant answer, he keeps it to himself and it isn’t mentioned again for a few chapters.

This book is of its time (1978), which means that it’s casually bigoted but wouldn’t think of itself as such. There’s a highly-qualified female character taking centre stage, but all the characters would rather leer than listen to her vital information. Men with high-pitched voices or shorter statures are shown to still have value, but their particular physical characteristics just keep on being mentioned negatively. There’s no outright xenophobia going on, but little touches of American exceptionalism shine through, along with fears of various shifty foreign powers.

Endearingly and accidentally, the book sounds far more racist than it actually is: killer bees are ‘Africanised’ honey bees (an actual real-world term), but Herzog often finds that too taxing to write. Instead, page after page is filled with comments about the dangers of the Africans swarming over here, taking over our fields and poisoning our women. I genuinely do think this is not intended to be a clunky metaphor: it’s not stark enough for how heavy-handed it would have to be. The actual main theme of the book is humanity’s relationship with nature, but if you picked a sentence at random you’d probably end up with a very different interpretation.

This was an odd read. I quite liked several things about its approach – the non-fiction trappings add an air of realism to a genre that often lacks it, and I’m always in favour of an author who is brimming with highly-specific minutiae. The decline of a country under an existential threat is well-observed. As a narrative though, and from an emotional impact point-of-view, the whole thing falls rather flat. It’s worth reading, I think, but I wouldn’t come back to it.

Buy it here.

The Cavern – Alister Hodge (Review)

When the opal miners heard strange tapping sounds in the tunnels, they thought it was a subterranean creature stalking them. They called it the “miners’ mother” and left offerings of blood to keep it away. Now the mines are closed, the offerings neglected and a long-dormant creature stirs hungrily in the dark.

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Subnautica (Review)

I have, for unknown reasons, always been drawn to the deeps. If a film/book/game is set underwater, regardless of other considerations (genre, quality, etc.), I am interested. Something about the bizarre half-lit world down there is endlessly fascinating to me. Subnautica, therefore, is absolutely my kind of thing.

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The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller (Review)

I picked up this book partly on the recommendation of a friend and partly because I was oddly charmed by all the negative reviews. While overall, reviews of this book are fantastic, there is a constant thread of negative reviews from people who are both astounded and enraged at the very idea that Achilles might have been anything other than a 100% heterosexual all-American hero.

I struggle to picture these reviewers; who are these people with a deep knowledge of Greek mythology, storied pedigrees in literary analysis/classics/history, and no awareness whatsoever of not just any subtext but also the past few millennia of discourse? They are so very, very angry and I would love to meet one.

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Dangerous Curves – Larkin Rose (Review)

Lacey is an ex-NASCAR photographer haunted by her memories of a fatal crash. Kip Sellars is a troubled NASCAR driver with a bad reputation and a death wish. The two have almost nothing in common except their mutual contempt, lust, and complimentary backstories (both involving witnessing the brutal death of a loved one in a racing accident).

When they are forced to work together to rehabilitate Sellars’ public image, Lacey and Sellars have no choice but to confront both their traumatic pasts and the undeniable attraction between them.

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Petit : The Ogre Gods – Hubert Boulard & Bertrand Gatignol (Review)

The giants are getting smaller. Once, they were titanic near-immortal beings, warriors and philanthropists. Now, each inbred generation is smaller than the last, and as they decline physically, they decline morally as well, becoming more brutish, more cannibalistic, and more obsessed with restoring their diminishing size. They rule swinishly over a half-ruined city where humans are food and servants.

Petit is the youngest and smallest of the giants, shunned by his own race and feared by the humans for his violent outbursts and occasional consumption of human flesh. The book follows his growth to adulthood in a decaying society, navigating the brutal ogre court and his own divided nature.

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