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?