Bone Dungeon – Jonathan Smidt (Review)

After an unjust execution, Ryan returns to consciousness as a dungeon core – a sentient lump of rock with the power to shape its immediate surroundings. Paired with Erin, a celestial fairy, Ryan’s goddess-given task is to challenge adventurers, stocking his dungeon with monsters so that questing heroes can gain experience.

There are complications to this though; Ryan has a magical affinity to darkness (necromantic energy), which is not only totally opposed to Erin’s magic/morals, but also a beacon to higher-levelled evil beings who seem him as an ally or a pawn. Living up to Erin’s expectations involves not using the full scope of his power, but living at all means he needs to get stronger, fast.

If the above description sounds strangely rigid and rule-bound, that’s because this is an example of a “LitRPG” – a genre of fantasy in which the fantasy world either is, or has rules that mirror, online role-playing games. Characters gain experience points, have classes and abilities, and monsters (mobs) drop a random assortment of items (loot) when they die. This has been a difficult paragraph to write without sounding like the sort of person who (ironically or otherwise) refers to the internet as a series of tubes.

Technically, this is actually an example of a “dungeon core” novel, a sub-genre of litRPGs in which the major focus is the dungeon and its denizens, not the visiting heroes. If you’re familiar with the (excellent) Dungeon Keeper series of games, then that, but as a book. Morality gets flipped, aesthetically if not in practice, and the protagonist’s team are the traditional bad guys.

I have issues with the litRPG genre as whole; it’s a very “safe” kind of writing, in which you rely on your reader’s prior experience of a different medium to do all the heavy lifting. It’s a genre typified by adolescence: a total power fantasy where – if you collect the right number of points – you get the gold and the girl and the good ending. And yet, despite being a power fantasy, it’s a curiously weak one: its imagination given flight, but only on the end of a string, unable to step outside the bars of its self-constructed cage. Stats and systems exist in games to be a poor copy of reality, simplifying complex concepts; books don’t suffer from the same limitation of having to make everything interpretable by a list of rules.

I don’t mean this to turn into a rant against the genre as a whole; that wouldn’t really be fair to Bone Dungeon. Let it suffice to say that this book has the same flaws as its parent genre – it substitutes rules and minutiae for character development and description.

And yet, and yet, and yet… this grabbed me. I don’t particularly like that it did, but I found myself reading this book rapidly, and casting my mind back to the story when in idle moments. Despite everything above, I enjoyed Bone Dungeon. It hooked me more effectively than most things I’ve read in a while.

Partly, I think, what I liked about this book was that it was non-standard – I’m always interested in non-human and non-upstanding protagonists, because they’re relatively rare. I enjoy the altered dynamics, the subversion of expectations, the exploration of roles and characters outside the usual cast. Evil magic rocks tick both those boxes. I must also, in the interests of honesty, confess that the Dungeon Keeper games are some of my favourites. Long discussions of managing the staffing levels in a cave are apparently something I enjoy.

The book is least interesting when it is most litRPG; I lost interest when the narrative started talking about experience points and showing new abilities being unlocked. It feels lazy, and characters gaining abilities because they’ve reached arbitrary thresholds means that there’s little scope in the action for character development: what would otherwise be crowning moments of ingenuity or sacrifice end up being abstracted away, until the resolution and reward of every conflict is just a new shiny power. Games use numbers and levels as an abstraction, a necessary evil for balancing and the feeling of progression for players; books don’t have the same limitations, but The Bone Dungeon clings to them anyway.

With that said, the narrative does manage to show character development, and have some genuinely interesting sections where it forgets that everything is prescribed by numbers. It’s something of a shame, really, because I think the book could have covered the same subject matter without the RPG elements, and the writing would have been strong enough to support that; it doesn’t need to be limited to the particularly-strict constraints of the genre.

One false note in the writing did bug me rather a lot – quite apart from the focus on specific, named mechanics, the narration is absolutely stuffed with modern references and nerd jokes. The characters themselves – inhabitants of a medieval-esque world, despite the gamification – aren’t aware of the double meaning in their comments: a rare example of non-diagetic dialogue. As a modern reader though, it’s somewhat immersion-breaking, and the immersion is already harmed by the genre conventions.

Despite the technically-evil protagonist, there’s a sense of innocence to this book; it feels very earnest, and there’s nothing in here that wouldn’t be appropriate for a young teenager. There are monsters and death and violence, but it’s all muted and gamified; even the most depraved enemy fails to be scary or horrifying. People die, and it’s a bit sad, but everyone recovers quickly and the narrative rolls on.

That, I think, is the big appeal of LitRPGs; it’s all wish fulfilment. It’s based on games, and in games, the hero wins (often after multiple attempts, but they don’t count). Negative things are muted and over fast, and positive things come with glowing golden light and fancy new equipment. Rewards come – for both the characters and the reader – at predictable intervals. The drama goes in easy, predictable arcs and tension is always followed by a release.

It doesn’t normally work on me – it’s an artificial kind of engagement, and I prefer books that make you suffer for the resolution; LitRPG normally just leave me cold. However, there’s enough complexity hidden in The Bone Dungeon, and enough pandering to my particular interest in evil protagonists, to keep it engaging.

I don’t especially want to recommend this, but it did hook me, and I have to acknowledge that. The book has rough edges, and the narration and genre work against itself; with more lit and less RPG, this would be a much more glowing recommendation. However, if you can look past the clunky conventions and gamified crutch, the narrative rattles along entertainingly, providing a more satisfying read than I first expected.

Buy it here.

One thought on “Bone Dungeon – Jonathan Smidt (Review)

  1. This could easily be a review of the whole genre. And having exhausted (shamefully) litRPG in print I have been drawn into online webfiction which occasionally transcends litRPG, but also seems to be its birth place. I do wonder how instant commentary on finished chapters by the hardcore of a fan base has shaped this genre. I could easily imagine departure from expectation been punished by negative feedback and reader number declines before it can pay off.
    Anyway if it helps, the wandering inn is a more intelligent and nuanced exploration (And occasionally rebuttal) of litRPG (https://wanderinginn.com/), pushing the edges of litRPG but still within the bounds somewhat is worth the candle (http://alexanderwales.com) and a better exploration of a morally suspect character can be found at (https://practicalguidetoevil.wordpress.com) Anyway that’s my unasked for 2 pence worth.

    Liked by 1 person

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