The Descent by Jeff Long
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I gave this 5 stars not because it was perfect, but because it did what any good book should do - it made me want to keep reading. One night I read it until 3.30am, I just couldn't stop. Other times I would find time to read a chapter rather than do something else. Only a minority of books have this effect on me, so it deserves the highest praise.
The opening chapter is the best one in the book. Mystery, twists, economical writing, and a descent into tension and then really convincing horror. This is a high mark - it obviously can't be this good for the whole book, but the novel goes on to take you in directions you didn't expect, and you still want to read on. If anything, the horror element fades out slightly: the more we learn about the Hadals, the less scary they become, and in comparison the humans seem more and more to be the monsters. It's a nice twist, but switches the novel from horror to thriller. Still compelling, but less likely to give you nightmares.
As other reviewers have noted, the novel is full of themes and subjects, an ambitious amount that few authors would try to incorporate into a single work. And, generally, it works well. It is part of the unexpected nature of the novel, with the twists and abrupt changes almost representing the twisting and broken tunnels beneath the earth.
Inevitably, tying up the loose ends is tricky but the author does it well. The novel does leave many questions though. What happened to major characters like January? Why was Branch turned part-Hadal in a very short space of time even though he'd never been underground and had less exposure to them than lots of other characters in the novel who weren't affected? What was the weird sexual disease a character gets? What happens - in detail - between Ike hiding in chapter 1 and his rediscovery later? (I can understand why this was not dealt with narratively, but at the same time we are left on the edge of our seats, terrified and wanting to know 'what happens next?' at the end of chapter one - we're sold on the product, but then it is taken away and we just get glimpses of it from time to time later, which feels like a bit of a con. We identify with Ike and want to find out how we would deal with whatever happened next.) I also thought the character of Isaac was confusing, since the implication is that he goes from corpse-like being to some kind of battle ogre; because there is a gap in the narrative after chapter one his character and relationship to that chapter left me puzzled. And one minor thing - an RAF man would have added the tattoo "favoured cosset" not "favored". Since the wording is being quoted it would be in UK English.
Despite elements that felt like they were added to the meal then not fully digested, the overall impression is of a stacked plate of unpredictable flavours. Details are convincing, there are many great scenes, and the alternation between discoveries and degradation (human or Hadal) strikes an interesting balance. This is Journey To The Centre Of The Earth crossed with the 2005 film The Descent and hints of The Omen film trilogy (in the subplot about discovering Satan's identity). If you like horror that can zoom out to give a bigger picture, rather than staying tightly within a character, then you'll love this. Try the first chapter and see if you aren't captured too.
View all my reviews