I have read the first 4 chapters and a bit of the fifth in the novel The Descent, by Jeff Long. Some among you might contend that one should read the entire book before writing a review, but to that I say, “fiddlesticks!” If the fist hundred pages give you plenty to talk about, why wait? The following is in the style of a real-time blog I might have been writing as I read the beginning of this book. My memory of my impressions as I read the first few chapters is unusually clear, however I feel I must write this review before going on with the story, lest I forget.
Edited to add: apparently the reading public (all one person who has mentioned it to me) has gotten the idea that I’m really not enjoying this book. There are a couple of times near the beginning that nearly lost me, but then something really cool happens and all is forgiven. I think now that the characters are introduced things will just be getting better.
Pseudo-LiveBlogging Descent’s first 4.2 chapters:
Every kid who aspires to be a writer should read this. A lot of people worked very hard on this book, including a nameless copy editor. It is apparent that the author also worked hard, devoting himself to research on many different subjects. This book was not the product of some guy simply sitting in front of a keyboard and making the magic happen.
We’re off to a good start; I have already developed a personal attachment to the author.
We have a group of tourists trapped in a cave somewhere in the bumpiest part of Tibet. Nice.
WTF??? we just had our first dramatic moment of the book, and it was totally contrived. I’m willing to suspend disbelief for almost any situation, but when people stop acting like people, that’s it, I’m done. They’re in a cave, in the pitch black, and only now someone thinks to turn on a light? Pleeeeeeease. So the big moment is ruined by a ridiculous and ultimately unnecessary need on the part of the author to have a Big Surprise.
It’s three days later now, and I’m picking the book back up. Despite the disappointment on the third page, I suspect I’m going to like this story. Onward, then, with chapter one. The thing revealed by the lights is pretty damn amazing, marred only by someone identifying an object as “solid gold” based on a glimpse of color beneath a coating of grime. Another silly detail that ultimately is not needed for the plot. But the thing itself, there in the cave, it’s pretty intense.
You know what I could use about now? Another page or two of backstory. You can’t overdo the backstory.
All right! Ike and his business partner/sweetie seem to be patching up some backstory relationship problems. It’s too easy. These two are going to be fighting for the whole damn book. Now they have to find another way out of the caves.
Sweet holy crap. I was undecided about this book until now. As chapter one closes, we learn just what Jeff Long is capable of. It’s not the horror of the situation, it’s how Ike judges his own response to the horror. All the above criticism is forgiven.
Another time, another place.
Nooooooooo! Not the mirror! The nun looks in the mirror and once again feels bad about being attractive. Ali took the mirror down for a while, then she put it back up – which I suspect is more a description of the author’s efforts to find another way to introduce her hotness. He wrote out the mirror then put it back in. Never mind that during the rest of the chapter there are plenty of times (especially during the extensive backstory) to present her hotness dramatically. From the mirror we learn two things: Ali’s a looker and she has long blonde hair. At the time, her attractiveness is irrelevant. The color of her hair could easily be introduced in a dozen other places, and the length is incongruous with the local heat and available hygiene. Easy to mention. But the author wanted us to know right away that Ali was one smokin’ nun.
Like there’s been a nun in modern literature who wasn’t temptation personified. Goes without saying.
Ooo! The intriguing native girl has given Ali a good luck charm. I will be sooo surprised to learn that it’s made from human skin.
The nun was a rising star in the church, but she stepped out of line at the wrong time. When she was relocated to the butthole of Africa, she went. Sometimes critical, but always loyal. She has given her life to the church and she will not be asking to have it returned.
But… things are getting interesting. The locals, and the girl (reputed to be a witch) in particular, seem to know a deep, dark secret. Perhaps they’ve been trying to tell Ali about it all along, but she hasn’t been willing to open her mind enough to hear them. There aren’t any obvious connections with the incidents in the cave that we can decipher, but it’s pretty clear that something big is going on. I want to know more.
Yep… It’s human skin. I lied before; I’m not surprised at all.
Bosnia. Rain. War crimes investigators. Branch is a career military guy who on that night accidentally lets his principles do the talking. He winds up flying an attack helicopter to investigate a strange occurrence. His commanding officer is not happy. Not at all. The colonel had put his foot down and Branch undermined his authority. A promising career just crashed against one man’s morals. This isn’t going to come out well.
OK, the other guy in the helicopter has never seen his newborn son. Why don’t we just paint a bulls-eye on him?
Holy smoke. Let’s just leave the chapter at that. Holy frickin smoke. Although the rockets don’t really make sense. But I’ll tell you this: I like the helicopter pilot, and I think these events are going to mess him up. I really care what happens to this guy. Like Ike in chapter one, Branch was faced with a choice between survival and compassion. He made a different choice. I think that’s going to matter down the road.
Our fourth point of view. We have a vatican scientist named Thomas investigating some ancienter-than-ancient ruins that were accidentally exposed. The vatican is quite adamant that the ruins be hidden away again, but Thomas wants a look first. He has an old friend who has seen the site, who has said some interesting things about a carving there, a face depicted in the ruins that seems to be actively preventing the church scientist from seeing it.
It’s funny when there are characters who have no reason to suspect foul play, but we readers all know bad shit is going to happen. Hell, it’s chapter four, and people have died in nasty ways in all the previous chapters. “Huh,” says one of the scientists. “The security guard must be off drinking.” Of course we know the security guard has died terribly, and we want to shout at the characters, “don’t you see?” But of course they don’t see. Why would they?
Thomas is a pretty good guy. You can feel his quiet confidence and the internal consistency of his character. His presence is intimidating to those who feel themselves lacking.
This chapter ends with a horrific revelation. What do you know? I like the church scientist, and with him came a couple of other characters that might prove interesting. We have met the intellect of our inevitable party of discovery (although the nun was also pretty damn smart).
Oh please oh please oh please don’t introduce another character. I’m looking at the book sitting on the table in front of me and I know another character would be more than I can handle. It’s not like I can’t keep track of five people, it’s that we have four completely different vectors toward the truth in this story, and that’s plenty. Also, some of the folks in the previous chapters were in pretty deep doodoo, and I’m anxious to hear back from them.
It has been pointed out to me that an odd-numbered group good for storytelling – it is always imbalanced, and can be imbalanced between different subsets of the group over different issues at the same time. We’ve got four characters right now, and that’s enough. A couple of these introductions were brutal enough to last me for a while.
I get the feeling that each character is crafted to represent a particular facet of humanity. Ali is compassionate, Thomas is intellectual, and so forth. One of the guys will get the hot nun, but at first it will be the wrong one.
Chapter 5 underway. We’re back with Branch, the helicopter pilot, and yes he’s messed up. Spooky messed up. The burn scars are competing with the scars from cuts and trauma; he’s still carrying a fair amount of metal around with him, as well as some medical equipment he absorbed while healing. His recovery was not normal. Now he’s back in Bosnia.
And that’s as far as I’ve gotten. There have been a couple of close calls where I put the book down and almost didn’t pick it back up again, but I’m hooked now. There will be a convergence, and the group will combine weaknesses as well as strengths.
I did not mention above the style of the writer, and to be honest, I never thought about it much. That’s a good thing. His voice is clear and doesn’t get in the way of the story. If I discover anything else over the next 450 pages I’ll let you know.
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