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.

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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Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeyemi (Review)

If you only looked at Western bestseller lists and film rankings, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Egyptian mummies are the only fantasy storyline which Africa has ever produced. But you’d be wrong – and I was thrilled to see that Children of Blood and Bone has brought a long-neglected mythology into young adult fiction.

We need more African stories. There’s an incredibly rich tradition of storytelling across the continent, which remains largely unrepresented in Western publishing. Tomi Adeyemi’s novel seems to draw mainly on Nigerian culture and mythology for inspiration, but I hope it heralds a great variety of stories from a great many more countries.

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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 see 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.

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Hellboy (2004) – Review

In the last days of WWII, desperate to change the course of the war, occult Nazis open a portal to hell; this is a classic occult Nazi tactic that will doubtless be familiar to you. Although US special forces eventually manage to close the portal before reality itself is unwritten, something still manages to come through.

That something is a juvenile demon, named “Hellboy” by the remaining allied troops. Initially intended to be a world-ending weapon for the Third Reich, the baby monster is instead adopted by a scientist and taken to the US. Years pass, and the demon becomes a vital asset to humanity, fighting monsters as part of the BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence).

In 2004, occult Nazis are nothing but a distant memory, except – surprise! – they’re all still alive and now they’re back to open a new portal to hell and unleash chaos. Hellboy’s attempts to stop them are hampered by both his complicated personal life and the way that everything he does plays right into their hands.

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The Binding – Bridget Collins (Review)

‘Imagine you could hide a secret. Forever.’

Set in an alternate past in which the binding of books is a magical process, people have their most traumatic memories erased and bound into books.

I have to admit, I initially wanted to read The Binding mainly because I kept seeing the gorgeous cover in the bookshop where I used to work and I coveted it, which feels quite appropriate. Having read it, I really don’t know what genre I would peg The Binding as being.

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Spellslinger – Sebastien De Castell (Review)

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In a society where power, status, and freedom are only given to those with magic, Kellen has a problem. Despite being from a powerfully magical family, and with only days to go before he either demonstrates his powers or is enslaved, Kellen’s magic has yet to appear.

It’s not a great situation to be in, and his personal problems pale into insignificance compared to the increasingly unstable political situation – an internal power vacuum, spies from a hostile kingdom, and the re-appearance of an extinct enemy. Kellen has little time(and even less power) to fix anything, but apparently it’s all his responsibility.
The setting is non-standard – it’s low fantasy but with more magic than normal, displaying little technology but with aesthetics somewhere between Arabian Nights and Westerns. It’s difficult to place the world against an equivalent mundane era, or tie it to a specific mythology. There’s a definite Eastern influence, but not to the exclusion of all else. I like things like that – it takes longer to work out what’s going on, but the creatures and magic are fresh.

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