Part 1: Rocky Start
Part 2: Tutorial
Part 3: Mushrooms Aren’t Plants
Part 4: Black and White
Part 5: Why Is The Dungeon Heart More Mobile Than His Minions?
Part 6: A Stoppable Force Meets A Movable Object
Part 7: Ongoing Tutorials And Video Game Morals
Part 8: Dale Strikes Back
Part 9: Late Explanations
Part 10: That Rabbit’s Not Dynamite
Part 11: Foreshadowing Of Five Armies
Part 12: End Of The Tutorial
Part 13: I Am Beginning To Suspect The Economics Of This Book Were Not Thought Through
Part 14: Religious Dispute
Part 15: Elemental Bunnies
Part 16: Dungeon Renovations
Part 17: Stumbling Forward
Part 18: Spooky Dagger
Part 19: Skipping Nothing
Part 20: The Finale, Such That It Is
At twenty posts, Dungeon Born is nearly double the length of any previous review I’ve done, but not because it’s particularly good or particularly bad, just because I happened to get very busy right as I was first reading Dungeon Born, which made me gravitate more towards getting one post done for the day and then immediately refocusing to something else. Whereas with previous books I would quickly realize when I was repeating myself because I would write several posts at a time, with Dungeon Born it took me until Part 19 and 60% of the way through the book to realize this, and then I had the whole thing wrapped up by Part 20 (which was undersized!). As such, the long form review of this book contains a lot of me making slight variations on the same nitpick over and over again instead of imposing and at least mostly respecting a moratorium on them once it becomes clear they’re going to mar the whole book.
So here’s the tl;dr: Dungeon Born doesn’t suffer from any stand-out crippling flaws like Succubus’ nice guy moralizing, Awaken Online’s blatant Mary Sue indulgence, or Threadbare having fucking Zuula in it. What it instead has is a ton of minor annoyances and not really anything interesting to recommend it. Half the book revolves almost exclusively around Dani teaching Cal how to dungeon (and in the back half, Cal figuring out how to dungeon for himself with mad science experiments, which is significantly less dull), and Cal and Dani’s dialogue is flat and uninteresting.
In the other half, we get the disjointed and aimless narrative of a town growing up around the dungeon as raiders come streaming in, under the direction of Dale, some random shepherd or something who happened to discover the dungeon along with a few others, and wound up being the only survivor of the first raid. This has a much wider cast of characters, but is still pretty much devoid of actual character arcs. The narrative occasionally talks about how Dale is getting more confident and forceful, but he killed a guy to secure the dungeon’s profits in the first chapter he appeared in. The character growth doesn’t actually happen because Dale has always been willing to take extreme measures to secure what he considers his fair share. Instead, it feels like reading the fantasies of someone mild-mannered and put-upon pretending to shock everyone by suddenly revealing they have far more power and resources than anyone thought, which is not a terrible scene to have once, but it becomes masturbatory when it starts happening over and over again, treated as though it’s a moment of growth each time.
The narrative is so lacking in actual plot structure or character arcs that at one point I realized I could (and did) skip entire chapters without anything being lost. Sure, things happen in those chapters, but not things which affect future chapters, except occasionally in a purely strategic way. AARs aren’t an inherently awful format or anything, so even that could work if there was some high level play going on (not that there’s an actual game to master, but I enjoy reading AARs that demonstrate a thorough grasp of games I haven’t actually played and have no understanding of, so a well-written book could produce a facsimile indistinguishable from the real thing by making up a sufficiently deep system to be exploited). Unfortunately, each dungeon raid is basically just the novelization of someone playing Torchlight for a couple of hours. There’s very little strategy involved, just a consistent arms race between Dale and his group getting stronger while Cal makes the dungeon stronger to try and kill them.
Then there’s the constant moral weirdness. The narrative repeatedly takes moral stances that are blatantly repugnant and either just lets them pass without comment, or even worse, tries to make excuses for them and fails. People talk about causing floods to wash away the homeless and beggars and how this isn’t really a big deal because they’re lazy and unproductive, and despite being a straw capitalist argument, that’s left to stand as the presumptive truth. Not only that, but the rulers hoard life extension magic for themselves, which is said to be what’s best for the world, because it prevents overpopulation (the possibility of using birth control is not discussed) and allows for greater stability. This, again, sounds like a philosophy meant to be understood to be blatantly villainous, here being stated by a character who I think is supposed to be sympathetic and then left unchallenged.
Worse than that, Cal is constantly murdering people for personal gain, and the only justification given is “well, they knew they were taking a risk.” So the lives of people who take risks are inherently worthless? It’s perfectly moral to shoot a soldier in the battlefield in the back and rifle through their pockets, because hey, they knew the job could be risky? It’s completely moral to go to a lumberjack barracks, bar the doors, and set the whole place on fire just to test out your new flamethrower and that’s fine, because hey, they all knew going into this that lumberjacking was a dangerous job? Getting people to risk their lives so that society can benefit is both important and not an easy thing to convince someone to do, so the deleterious effects on society of considering anyone who takes risks to be less worthwhile as a person than someone who doesn’t should be obvious.
“He knew the risks” is typically used to mean “he might not have deserved to die, but the stakes are high enough that a few human deaths are an acceptable price to pay, and his being the specific life paid was a result of his own fully informed decisions. It might not be right, but it’s not like he just got murdered out of nowhere.” This book uses the same basic phraseology, but is totally devoid of any understanding of what it means, and instead uses it to justify murdering people out of nowhere.
The whole thing comes across like the author doesn’t have any morals is too self-righteous to just own that and instead keeps trying to persuade you that it’s totally okay when he murders people for profit because he worked for what he has (this is almost verbatim from an argument presented by Dale and reaffirmed as “well-reasoned” by the narrative). I don’t know if the author actually believes that (for all I know, there’s a reversal in book three where the emptiness of the rhetoric used to justify all the unrestricted, murderous greed in this book is exposed and made into a plot point), but that’s the vibe that gets communicated by the book, and that’s a problem, because not only is it a shallow theme to have, it’s not even actually core to the theme. It has no impact on the plot or character arc because there’s not much of a plot or character arc to impact. There’s just occasionally these really poorly thought out justifications for obviously wrong actions, sometimes inserted for apparently no other reason except to establish that characters hold these poorly thought out opinions. No one’s decisions are actually driven by the belief that only select elites should be allowed to have extended lifespans. It just gets brought up and then dropped.
I may have spent half this summary review ranting about these bizarre, straw conservative morals being dropped into the book for no apparent reason, but they only come up once every few chapters and are mostly irrelevant. You may be wondering, then, why I spent so much time on them. The answer is because the book is so interminably dull, so incapable of building up a plot that amounts to anything other than an AAR of perfectly typical ARPG gameplay, that there’s nothing else to talk about. Even though this one flaw mars only maybe 10% of the book, the other 90% is just events strung together, building to nothing. And it’s boring. The only point or purpose is that our two viewpoint characters steadily gain more power, without being seriously opposed by anything, including one another. Cal tries to kill Dale, but pretty much just for the Hell of it, not because of some kind of clash of motivation. Cal could just as easily decide to intentionally avoid killing Dale and the plot would be unaltered. Dale kills Cal’s minions over and over again, but never has any intention of harming Cal himself.
Now we’re at the end of the book, let’s see how many of the Longes predictions wound up coming true: