592 pages, Jove
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
It's a good feeling when a book throws you an unexpected curveball. I didn't have any preconceptions about Jeff Long's lengthy novel when I started reading it. For the first few chapters it followed a fairly traditional thriller formula where the central characters uncover a great mystery with the potential to change the world as we know it. In the case of “The Descent” this comes by way of the revelation that the earth beneath our feet is riddled with thousands upon thousands of miles of tunnels and caverns reaching deeper than anyone would have conceived possible. There is also alarming evidence that the network of underground tunnels are inhabited by hostile creatures. Homo Hadalis or Hadals are the proto-humans whose prolonged exposure to the depths have given rise to hideous deformities and mutations. The scientists on the surface quickly hypothesise that the underground world and its inhabitants have formed the basis for mankind's belief in hell and demonic monsters.
It is at about this point that Long pulls off his coup de grace and skips forward three years in time. The time-shift doesn't disorientate the reader or feel contrived. Impressively, Long whips out the rug from beneath our feet and plunges us miles beneath the surface of the planet. What starts as a supernatural thriller suddenly becomes a hi-tech lost-world adventure as the world's military competes with multinational corporations in order to exploit the wealth of resources beneath their feet. Some readers may find this change of tone and pace a little hard to swallow but the adventure which plays out in the Stygian depths is undeniably thrilling.
Following a devastating loss of hundreds of thousands of personnel in the underworld, the military seeks to destroy the creatures who make the darkness their home. The corporations aim to claim the dark new world as their own and set up their own nation states. Stuck in the middle of this is a team of scientists who are sent on an expedition to explore the uncharted depths and learn more about the mysterious Hadals. Accompanying them is Ike Crockett, a mountaineer whose capture and enslavement by Hadals has given him first-hand experience of the creatures and their subterranean world. Ike is a great character and a very believable anti-hero. When we first meet him in the opening chapters of the book, he is a cocky, somewhat arrogant chap. His ordeal as a Hadal slave twists both his mind and his body, making him an outsider in both the human and Hadal worlds. A more sympathetic character comes in the form of Ali. A nun with an academic interest in ancient languages, Ali is the empathetic soul of the novel. She believes that by cracking the Hadal tongue, it will be possible to discover the root of all modern languages. However, once the expedition is underway, Ali learns that there is a more sinister motive behind their descent.
Needless to say, there's a hell of a lot going on in this book and in the hands of a lesser writer it could have ended up a terrific mess. Long handles the numerous plot threads with great confidence, weaving them into one another to create a dense, tightly plotted novel. Indeed, with so much going on, it would be all too easy for a reader to become overwhelmed but the novel possesses such a strong narrative drive that one is swept along effortlessly. Of course, the notion that there are countless miles of tunnels beneath the earth that have somehow remained undiscovered for the duration of human history is ridiculous in the extreme. Those willing to step over this enormous gap in the book's logic will be rewarded with a marvellously well-conceived subterranean world that gives Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs' similar creations a run for their money.
Part thriller, part lost-world fantasy, part horror - “The Descent” is a tricky book to categorise. To call it an adventure story seems insufficient, as Long invests a great deal of time developing his characters and taking them on a fascinating (and frequently chilling) journey. Through their eyes we see that whilst the Hadals are savage, barbaric creatures, it is man who is capable of the most monstrous cruelty. The Hadals might be the historical basis for demons but true evil is undoubtedly a human trait.
Hereward L.M. Proops