Today we’re reading Dungeon Born. Pretty much all I know about this book is that it is in the “dungeon heart” sub-genre where the main character runs a dungeon instead of storming them, and that it gets pretty good ratings on Amazon.
This is a bad sign.
They laughed when they murdered me. Laughed! Their squeals of delight were sickening as they reveled in the blood pouring from the jagged knife wounds spread across my chest. These disgusting people – I use the term people with trepidation – were obviously disdainful of all living beings. They killed me just for. . . for . . . ? Odd. This was strange – I couldn’t remember why they killed me. Who were ‘they’? Matter of fact, everything was starting to become . . . hard to . . . remember . . . ? I . . .
And the first paragraph of actual story is only making things worse. An amnesia setup. Spectacular.
“Oh no, you don’t!” The nasal, phlegmy voice of one of the assailants shattered the silence. He loomed over the broken, tortured body I was fleeing. “Dying won’t let you off the hook! Hee hee hee! Stealing from me was the worst decision you ever made! Now you will serve me, beg me!” he screamed, spittle flying. His mood shifted abruptly, as madmen’s are prone to do. “to free you, because of your own stupidity! Ha-ha-ha!”
And it keeps getting better: An antagonist motivated by ambiguous “insanity” used to explain their “random” behaviors and contradictory motivations whose purpose is clearly to facilitate the plot.
I found myself being forcefully drawn toward a tiny gem in his hand. I screamed as only a tortured soul is able, albeit silently to the human ear. I imploded into the small gem, which gleamed brighter by the second.
I don’t generally consider craft important. Sticking to functional descriptions of what’s going on and how the viewpoint character is reacting to it is fine. If you’re going to go for poetry, though, you do have to actually be good at it. There is just enough stylistic flourish in this prose to make me notice that the style is shit.
One detail in particular stood out as I reached the apex of my flight. A group of people in armor which blazed with the reflection of the sun were walking toward black-clad bodies now sprawled in ignoble poses.
“Filthy Necromancers!” the largest, shiniest man roared, distaste evident in every motion he made. “Make sure to burn their rotten corpses and everything they have with them. It is sure to be tainted by the infernal.” He glanced to where a – somehow familiar? – body lay broken and covered with blood and filth.
“Poor bastard, I’m sorry we weren’t fast enough. . . to save you.” He managed to say brokenly, keeping his voice low in an attempt to preserve morale in his followers. Mixed emotions skittered across his face before finally settling on anger. He then turned and began barking orders, the last I saw of his group before slipping over the edge of a crevasse, falling deep into the earth.
I know sometimes I jump around in a way that’s disorienting without realizing it until after the post is published, because I lose track of which bits of setup I’ve already explained and which I haven’t. That’s not what’s happening here. I only skipped like two paragraphs between this excerpt and the last, and half of it was just the wizard guy gloating some more. The scene is just actually this disjointed.
I fell for an extremely long time, rock blurring past me as my fall increased in speed. Dropping too long really, as I began to worry that I would shatter when I landed. This was a serious concern for me – momentarily. Then some shiny rock distracted me, light sparkling off it as I passed. Pretty! Is my mental state deteriorating? Ooh, that sparkle was red! The fall was probably only a few hundred feet, but since I was so tiny it felt like miles, like hours to my distracted thoughts.
For starters, the “ADHD lolz” vibe is reminding me of kender. This had better not become a defining character quirk of our protagonist.
Secondly, falling velocity is affected by surface area relative to mass, and a rock is very heavy for its cross-section, especially if mostly round-ish and therefore pretty aerodynamic compared to, say, a spread-eagled human. A fall of just a few hundred feet should be over in less than ten seconds, and it should only take that long because the rock won’t even have time to accelerate to terminal velocity on the way down.
Threadbare had this thing where early on the character doesn’t have any idea how the world works, and has to explore to figure out basic concepts like “family” and “hugs” and so on. It pulled it off by having a third-person narrator who could speak normally. The first person narrator of Dungeon Born instead subjects us to the stream of consciousness of a three year old:
Necromancers? I hated Necromancers!! Where had that thought come from? I clung to it, trying to ensure that I would remember this. The thought wrapped around me, becoming one of my mental pillars, a foundation for my thoughts. Knowing I would remember my hatred for, um? Necromancers! Right. What the heck is a Necromancer? I don’t really care, I suppose, but ohhh boy do I hate them! I finally looked around myself, trying to describe for my fleeting sanity how things looked.
I didn’t really have words for things, but the names of them kept popping into my head. Rock. More rock. Water. Head? What? Where am I? What am I? Oh yeah! I’m a gem! A beautiful, shining gem.
This is your first chapter. It’s your chance to hook a reader with what’s awesome about your book. And your hook here is…that we’re going to have to listen to the narrator babbling until they regain enough intelligence to have a normal thought process. All we need to know here is that Jimmy Protagonist is 1) amnesiac and 2) not fully functional, both of which can be accomplished in the space of a single paragraph, and without giving the sole voice in the narration the distractable mindset of a child. This goes on for a couple of pages.
One day I noticed that the puddle I was in had slowly shrunk as temperature increased, but now water was coming down from above and refilling it! This made me really happy. That’ [sic] is a good thing I think, having my puddle full. I like my puddle. But now it is getting too full? This had never happened before! My puddle was about to spill! Oh no, would that ruin it? *Drip* A final drop hit and the puddle spilled over its stony boundary, pouring down the sides of what turned out to be a hollow stalagmite. Water must have taken the core of this rock and hollowed it out before I got here.
A single drop of water being added to a reservoir should not result in that reservoir spilling over the edge. It should result in a single drop of water sliding over the edge of the reservoir. Similarly, while there’s probably some sequence of events that could lead to a stalagmite forming, being hollowed out, and being exposed to the sky such that it could be filled with rainwater, with the constant botched science so far, I’m not confident that any thought at all has been put into how on earth only the center of the stalagmite would have been subject to erosion, or at least subject to more intense erosion than before.
This is all really nitpicky, sure, but that in turn goes to show how dull this scene is, wherein we literally stare at a rock for years. Yes, years. Thought this guy was gonna get plugged into a dungeon intelligence and be immediately confronted by his former adventuring party trying to storm him? Why do that when we could instead listen to a fishmalk rock failing to understand the concept of winter?
Apparently the water is somehow attached to Jimmy’s consciousness, though, because when it expands, he understands more of his surroundings and can now sense the places where the water touched, even after the water dries.
For some reason, I also really began to understand the rock I was on. After all, now I knew the word “stalagmite”. I also knew it was made out of limestone, mostly calcium carbonate. Fun, new words!
Buddy, your goal here should be to make the audience ignore the scientific plausibility of what’s going on. Preferably by having some kind of actual plot happen, but at minimum you could at least refrain from throwing science words like “calcium carbonate” around.
And then, uh…this happens:
What was that? There was a dark earthy color moving through the rock, wriggling in set sequences like a worm moves through dirt. I reflexively reached out and touched it with my mind, and little sparkles of it pulled away from the stone and drifted toward me! What was this? How did it follow my mind? It kept coming closer, now of its own accord. In an act of defiance, when the dark color touched my crystalline surface, I grabbed at and pulled it in, absorbing it. Shock rippled throughout my being.
I assume this is some kind of magical resource. Even if it’s just a MacGuffin that Jimmy wants more of because it gives him the rock version of a dopamine rush, that’d be fine, except that it’s completely unclear how Jimmy is going to be able to find or acquire more of it, so it isn’t actually serving to motivate him to do anything.
Refocusing on myself again, moving in disappointment, I looked at the energy I had absorbed. I “ate” what I could, savoring every bit while the light within slowly faded away, until there was only a filthy brackish-brown color remaining. Trying to “eat” this as well, I found it tasted horrendous, like roasted turds. Disgusted, I tried to “spit” it out, and surprisingly it quickly streamed out of me and floated back to the rock around me, which drank it in like rainwater falling on desert sands. Wait a sec, what is a desert. . .? Meh. What was I thinking about? I forget. There is food to be eaten, hopefully I could get more!
I have no idea what any of this means, except that apparently the “narrated by a five year old” schtick is going to continue to be a thing for at least the early portions of the book. Joy.
Each stone the water washed over increased my knowledge. Soon I could tell you the names of everything in “reach,” and their properties. For instance, I knew just how much energy they contained, allowing me to calculate the sustenance I would be able to draw from them. I knew what they were made of, how tightly bonded they were, their density, and which of them would float (none of them). From this knowledge, I found more efficient ways of “‘eating’.” Pulling the brown stuff from sand released almost no energy, while more dense stones like quartz gave off larger amounts, so I made sure to focus on them.
Okay, so expanding the radius of control gives him more energy to work with. Still no word on what this energy can do, like if he can use it to spawn goblins or if he just wants more of it and it thus serves as incentive for expansion or what, but apparently he can draw steady sustenance from all ground he controls and some types of matter are worth more than others. That’s not terrible worldbuilding. The beginning has me skeptical about the general level of skill involved, but no damage has been done so far that would actually harm the narrative overall. Like, sure, the absolute worst place to have your boring bits is at the very beginning, but while the narrative has been kind of boring so far, that won’t have any bad effects on the overall story so long as things get exciting. It doesn’t leave scars on the narrative the way lucky contrivances do lasting damage to my ability to take threats seriously when the author might swoop in and deliver a deus ex machina at any moment. Jimmy is motivated by curiosity and avarice, which isn’t a bad combination, and if he discovers something that gives him actual agency over the world rather than just waiting for rain to expand his demesne for him, this might go somewhere reasonably interesting.