Monday, June 19, 2023

Review: Underland by Maxime J. Durand

A cosmic horror setting without cosmic horror characters is a brilliant combination

You may remember that in 2007, Brandon Sanderson wrote that magic in fantasy stories should have logical rules that make sense, and later, in 2012, N. K. Jemisin wrote that the whole point of fantasy stories is that magic exists beyond all logic and sense. With all due respect to the inimitable quadruple-Hugo-and-quadruple-Locus winner, on this specific topic of fantasy literature the esteemed Ms. Jemisin is totally wrong and Mr. Sanderson is totally right. Magic is more interesting (rather, it's only interesting) when it has rules. And one demonstration of the wonders that can result from a strictly systematic magic system is Maxime J. Durand's dark fantasy novel Underland.

Originally posted as a web serial, Underland follows the quest of multiclass summoner/necromancer Valdemar to find a new world for humankind. Centuries ago, an evil moon blocked out the sun, dooming the world to the terrors of the night. Suddenly overwhelmed by unimaginable monstrosities, civilization quickly collapsed, and humans migrated to underground caverns where they'd be safe from the cold and the ghosts that roam the dead surface. Once resettled, humans discovered the magical potential in their own blood, and used it to rebuild a semblance of the stability they had before. Today the human territories are under the absolute rule of Dark Lords, immensely powerful mages with debatably compatible agendas. But other creatures already lived in the Underland before humans arrived, and some aren't willing to be nice neighbors. To be fair, too often humans haven't shown the noblest behavior toward other sentient creatures. What looks like peace conceals numerous tensions that may snap at any time.

But the worries don't stop at the mundane. In their study of magic, some have unwisely contacted extraplanar powers that can't be trusted, much less controlled. Such spells have been declared illegal, but that hasn't stopped the proliferation of clandestine cults that seek an escape from life underground. One cult in particular involved an entire family, the Verneys, who were exterminated by an order of knights dedicated to keeping those mysterious entities from invading the living world. The only survivor from the Verney family was Valdemar, back then a child, who now secretly experiments with planar travel to find a more inhabitable place for humankind to move to. Suspected of trying to continue his criminal family's loathsome rituals, he's been put under arrest, but one of the Dark Lords has taken an interest in his abnormally strong magical skills and has offered him the tools to finish his research... at an unspecified price.

Web serials are usually friendly bedfellows with fanfiction, and Underland unapologetically bears the marks of its self-published origins. The novel is evidently shaped by Dungeons and Dragons: its setting brings to mind the classic Underdark expansions; it is populated by the usual suspects—dark elves, dark dwarves, troglodytes, golems, and liches; some of the extraplanar locations namedropped in the text resemble those used in the game; and the plot is punctuated by quests, side quests, and downtime training. The rest of the worldbuilding samples liberally from Gnosticism, Kabbalah, and the Lovecraftian corpus to depict a setting precariously enveloped by unsuspected powers that are just one wrong incantation away from crossing into material reality.

The prose in Underland is effective at setting a macabre tone. Consider this chapter opening:

He dreamed of rats that night. They crawled in a grotesque pit dug in black oily stone, squeaking and gnawing on the flesh of the innocent.

The author knew to keep the alluring aesthetic of cosmic horror without the worst ingredient of cosmic horror, which is its attitude. This is a world of gory witchcraft, unnatural transformations, painful rituals, obscene ruins, threatening dreams, widespread pestilence, boiling blood, imprisoned demons, moldy tunnels, abhorrent experiments, and costly secrets. And yet, the author is deliberate in his selection of focus characters. Even though the book's setting has all the recognizable signs of cosmic horror, its characters are very emphatically not cosmic horror characters. Even though nothing more than a thin veil separates visible reality from tenebrous chaos, the mages we meet in this novel don't adopt the attitude of helpless desperation that is so annoying in traditional cosmic horror. They don't believe that the hidden forces that control the universe are beyond human comprehension; they don't accept the eternal superiority of the ancient gods; they don't fear the mysterious; they don't tremble in awe at the unearthly. It's like walking through the tired grimness of Black Mirror and finding Ted Lasso living there. With a beautiful, admirable ethos of humanism, these characters approach the unknown and make it known. Instead of submitting to the supernatural, they study it, find its practical applications, deduce its laws. These mages may be gifted with fantastical powers, but their sharpest tool is human reason.

And here we arrive at the greatest pleasure of reading Underland: watching our protagonist use creatively the rules of magic to make up combinations of spells that are wholly surprising yet follow logically from the established facts. It's an irresistible type of nerdy catnip to inhabit the inner thoughts of a smart hero as he reasons his way out of impossible plights. Either with inventive solutions born from a desperate moment of improvisation, or with procedures coldly planned with meticulous care, Valdemar is an inspiring hero who understands the unlimited power of lifelong learning.

His impressive talents notwithstanding, Valdemar is far from a perfect person. The execution of his entire family has stunted his ability to form connections to other people, and in some scenes his unconventional moral intuitions come off as appallingly heartless. At the same time that he makes progress in the challenging techniques of advanced sorcery, he undergoes an equally strenous education in interpersonal contact. It has a moving effect to watch this formidable spellcaster, who is no stranger to commanding demons and transmuting his blood into an interdimensional portal, discover for the first time the simple joy of making true friends who support his dreams without judgment.

Although the text always highlights the moral questions where Valdemar's position has defects, it's worth noting that, as a whole, the society of Underland rests on some surprising assumptions that go against the grain of what fantasy literature has usually considered acceptable. In Underland, to seek immortality is not viewed as inherently evil. Multiple methods exist to cheat death, including soul receptacles, mechanical bodies, youth potions, and even undeath, which causes no scandal. It's actually taken for granted that everyone who can afford it will resort to one of these methods, and that it would be inexcusably foolish not to. This is another manifestation of the novel's underlying humanism: just as mystery is the enemy, and thus shall be overcome, death is the enemy, and shall likewise be overcome.

Underland is the first part of a duology that continues in Underland 2. The reader must be warned that this novel ends in a cliffhanger, but what a howling hell of a cliffhanger it is. Now, it may be argued against this choice of ending, and against the novel in its entirety, that the author relies too much on the fact that Lovecraft's œuvre has become public domain, and such an accusation wouldn't be without merit. The reader may also feel distracted by the repeated appearance of narrative conventions inherited from Dungeons and Dragons, which carry unwelcome baggage in the form of bioessentialism, territorial expansionism, and unquestioned monarchism.

Once these missteps are admitted, there remains plenty to enjoy in Underland. Its unusual treatment of the aesthetic of cosmic horror is a refreshing change of direction from the undue reverence that puny mortals are typically expected to profess for the darkness. Even in the deepest bowels of the earth, the undying flame of human reason lights the way.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Durand, Maxime J. Underland [Podium Publishing, 2022].