”Well something had to cause it!” broadcasted an angry bearded man. “I lost half my flock. Maybe some meteoric iron is laying around? The whole damn mountain nearly fell over.”
This is the opening paragraph of the chapter. We’re seeing things from the perspective of the townsfolk now. Being 14% of the way through, it’s not a bad place for a change in perspective, especially since Cal and Dani aren’t very fun to listen to.
A small group of sheepherders were walking along a sloping mountainside, sunshine streaming around them as they searched for the source of their sudden misfortune.
Why didn’t this scene open with this? Why lead with disembodied heads talking to each other and then set the scene? It’s not the first line of the book. Anyone who’s reached chapter five is pretty likely to read through to the end (unless there is a sudden plunge in quality), so there’s no need to be trying to hook anyone this late in the game.
the forest around the base of the mountain range visible from this lofty vantage, the mood was ruined by the incessant yammering of the bearded man named Tim.
A fresh faced young man decided to input his thoughts, “Well, we are on a plain currently, right? Maybe when we get to higher ground we will be able to see where it hit.”
This conversation is weird about names, too. They seem to be thrown in whenever the author thinks of them. Tim here gets a name, but his interlocutors are still just “a fresh faced young man” and “a swarthy man.”
”Maybe you’ll learn to keep your mouth shut when your betters are talking.” Tim sniped nastily.
Fine,” Tim grumbled, “Why not just give someone else the treasure while you are at it?” Throwing down his bag, he pulled out a bedroll and lay on the ground while the others set up camp.
The swarthy man eyed Tim, “Since you decided to rest while we worked, you can have the ‘pleasure’ of taking first shift this evening.”
Sometimes I start a quote from the book in the middle of character dialogue, so the first quotation mark isn’t in the sentence. Every now and again I remember to add a [“] to paper over, but usually not. That’s not what’s going on here. The lack of beginning quotes on Tim’s two lines here is straight from the text, which was sold for money on Amazon. That’s not a huge deal by itself, but my noticing and commenting on these kinds of mistakes is more important as a symptom of the overall problem than its actual cause: The writing is sloppy enough that I feel like tabbing out of the book to point out these minor oversights, rather than being compelled to read on and ignore minor errors.
While keeping watch that night, Tim spots the glint of treasure.
“Well, would you. Look. At. That.”
I’m sure the cadence of this sentence made perfect sense to the author, but in particular the pause between “you” and “look” sounds really weird when I’m reading it. It’s usually better to just write grammatically and let the reader figure out the cadence for themselves. They might not get the same one you had in mind, but trying to get a reader to hear exactly what you want them to hear or see exactly what you want them to see usually does more harm than good.
Hours later, when the sun achieved its lofty placement on the horizon known as dawn,
This book has managed to avoid its attempts at poetic prose for the last couple of chapters. I note with some disappointment that they have returned.
“What is it?”
“You think it is a Beast lair?”
“Don’t be foolish, they would never make that kind of art around the edges. It’s some old city ruins!”
See? The art on the edges is doing nothing else but drawing attention. Don’t do that kind of thing until you’ve already been discovered.
One of the shepherds steps into one of the spiked pit traps.
The men clustered around the hole in the floor, trying to establish contact with their fallen comrade. They lit a torch and held it over the opening in time to see and smell their friend void his bowels in his death throes.
Thus, naturally, they all immediately fled the cavern, being simple shepherds who just stopped into an unknown cave and having one of their number killed by what was obviously an intentionally laid trap. Or at least, that’s what should happen. I will be extremely disappointed if anyone except that idiot Tim guy decide to press on for treasure after one of their friends fucking died. They’re not tower defense creeps, they’re peasants with an existing livelihood and presumably with families.
One less-than-inspiring speech from the openly antagonistic and abrasive party leader later:
These were practical men, and life was hard in the mountains. While they were shocked at the death, they knew Tim was right. Each of them hardening their hearts, they moved more carefully, unknowingly following Tim deeper into terrible danger. Death was everywhere in the Phantom Mountains.
What the Hell does being “practical men” have to do with pushing further into a clearly trapped cavern for the hope of treasure? That’s not practicality, that’s betting your life – not just your life savings but your actual life – on a lottery ticket. It’s impractical people who take these kinds of high-risk, high-reward gambles, and survivors who manage to scrape a living even in deadly environments are the ones who know to turn and flee immediately when life-threatening danger shows up. If one of your mates is in trouble, you help him out, sure, but there’s no helping the guy in the pit now.
“Well, would you look at that?” The swarthy man breathed. He held up his torch, the light reflecting off something on the wall. “Well men, I’d say we are going to become very rich. Unless I miss my guess, that is native iron. We’re looking at the future site of an iron mine!”
Do you know how to work an iron mine? You can’t just head into a cavern and start hacking away at the wall, you’ll cause a cave-in. You need to know how to actually mine stuff. And you need to know where to sell your ore. And you need the tools to harvest the ore, and preferably some mine carts and stuff to help bring it to the surface so you don’t have to haul it all out by hand in bags and buckets, and certainly you need carts or wagons to haul it all to wherever you’re selling it. Plus, you have to actually work in the mine, the one that’s been fucking booby trapped and therefore obviously already has an owner. The floor gave way and there were spikes underneath. That’s not a natural hazard!
Entering the third room, they saw no metals, so went directly toward the adjacent tunnel.
Why?! The last time you went poking around in here, someone died. Now you’ve already found the site of your new mine and you’re pushing further?
Predictably, this leads to one of them getting chewed in half by Bane.
The remaining three moved quickly down the tunnels,
So far as I can tell, this is the first time the total number of the group has been named, so it’s the first time we really have an accurate picture of how close either side is to victory. Tim, “the swarthy man,” and “the young man” are our survivors, with the other two having been given no defining features at all. They got a few throwaway lines, which could have been used to set up their names (and explicitly stating their number a couple of times, spaced out through the first part of the chapter, would’ve helped too), but instead it’s here, during the half-dead party’s retreat from the dungeon, that we get our first clear indication of how much chance this group has of overwhelming the defenses. Y’know, if there were twenty of them, the two casualties taken so far wouldn’t have been a big deal, since they are apparently TD creeps willing to throw themselves deeper and deeper into the deadly cavern until they reach the end. At least, they were until now, because apparently two casualties is enough to convince “practical men” not to risk their lives for an unknown amount of treasure, where one casualty was not.
The swarthy man ends up biting it during the retreat because some grabby moss trips him up and, in what is either spectacular luck or very careful aiming on the part of the moss, lands directly on a booby-trapped mushroom, which ejects a thorn straight through this head. So by the time the group has reached the first chamber again, there’s two left.
With fire in his eyes, the young man watched the mushrooms devour the man he had just shoved into them.
Once again, this janky description is not a result of cut context. The previous paragraph is just Tim talking about how he’s going to take the treasure all for himself. The narrative starts by describing generic anger in the young man’s eyes, then describes Tim being devoured by mushrooms, then describes how he got within range of the unmoving mushrooms in the first place. It’s a jumbled mess that only makes sense after you’ve read it, rather than as you’re reading it.
The young man speaks to the remains of Tim:
“You were never my better, just older than me. Much older. Also, my name is Dale, you jerk.” He left the cave and started home quickly, preparing to become a very, very rich man.
What a shitty way to end the raid. “You jerk” is comically understated at what’s meant to be a moment of growth for this guy, and the bit about “betters” was obviously true and didn’t need to be stated. In fact, it was already heavily implied in dialogue (by the swarthy man) earlier in the chapter, so there’s no reason for Dale to be saying it now when he’s already firmly expressed that attitude by murdering Tim (in fairness to Dale re: murder charges, Tim is likely a threat to Dale’s life at this point, since he’s openly planning to loot the dungeon for himself and Dale is the only one who could beat him to it – but the act is still easily extreme enough to make Dale’s opinion on the whole “older = better” thing clear without having to state it out loud).
And even if shortened down to just “my name is Dale,” which isn’t a terrible Bond one-liner to murder someone with, it’s not worth the confusion induced by having only one named character in this sequence (especially when two of them aren’t even given descriptive epithets like “the swarthy man” was).
All of this is too bad, because this chapter was actually really close to being clever. Switching to the perspective of the dungeon raiders solves the problem where Cal has nothing to do during the raid but pray to Kantor that his static defenses are effective. There was even an actual character arc with Dale. This chapter had a lot of problems, but at the end I was at least mildly interested in Dale, which is more than I can say for Cal or Dani, whose progress towards their goals is too agonizingly slow and too bereft of significant opposition for me to care, to say nothing of the fact that Cal and Dani have a really grating dynamic. But although it took us 15% of the book to get to the point where there’s an actual plot, Dungeon Born might be able to pull itself up to the level of getting backhanded compliments like “eh, not bad” if it can keep this kind of thing up.