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The Descent
Jeff Long
Victor Gollancz, 470 pages

The Descent
Jeff Long
Jeff Long's writing awards include the Texas Literary Award, the Western Writers of America Best Novel Award, the British Boardman-Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, and the American Alpine Club's Literary Award, and several of his books have been made into films.

As a veteran climber and traveller in the Himalayas, he has visited Everest and Makalu, leading one expedition and guiding tour groups in Tibet. In 1976, he served 3 months in Nepalese jails on smuggling charges. That exposure led to articles about the CIA/Tibetan guerrilla movement and the 1990 democratic revolution in Nepal. In 1996, he served as an OSCE elections supervisor in Bosnia's first democratic elections.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Charlene Brusso

Michael Crichton meets Stephen King meets Jules Verne! touts the breathless cover blurb on this subterranean thriller. Long begins with the idea that early man's concepts of a dark and threatening Underworld grew from rare sightings of subterranean dwellers, primitive humans mutated into horrible, horned and armour-plated demonoids who thrived on cannibalism and torture.

The novel opens in a very Crichton-esque fashion with a trio of disparate viewpoints. First is Tibetan eco-tour guide "Ike" Crockett ("Ike" being short for Dwight David, and all the resonances suggested by the name) leading a band of New Age tourists through the Himalayas. Caught in a sudden blizzard, Ike's band takes shelter in a mountain cave, only to discover the frozen body of an RAF pilot apparently lost sometime during WW II. His skin tattooed with bits of poetry and Bible verses, his body bears evidence of torture and enslavement -- and before long Ike discovers the source of that enslavement as he and his party are overwhelmed by shadowy, smelly creatures deep underground.

Cut to a couple of years later, when nun and linguist Ali von Schade (schaden is German for hurt or loss) finds hints of a previously unknown tribe given to human sacrifice hidden away in the desert desolation of South Africa. Now jump once again, this time to Bosnia where Major Elias Branch is one of the peacekeepers assigned to protect UN investigators charting evidence of wartime atrocities. When Branch's helicopter crashes in the middle of a massacre site, he encounters something apparently so horrible he can't describe it. Though rescued (if barely alive) he's left badly scarred both physically and emotionally.

And then jump a few more years. Despite his refusal to talk about what happened to him, Branch has returned to Yugoslavia to lead soldiers under the earth and explore the dark world where the monstrous and mysterious hadals (from "homo hadalis") live. Once they manage to push the haddies back and secure some territory (and incidentally recover Ike, now transformed into something scarred and barely human), mega-corporation Helios, owned by unlikable C.C. Cooper, moves in to build underground bases. Helios publicity claims the company will mount a grand expedition à la Journey To The Centre of The Earth, crossing under the Pacific plate via a series of linked caverns and underground rivers. Ike, with his knowledge of the haddies and tunnel life, will be their guide.

In the meantime, Ali has been contacted by a group which calls itself the Beowulf Project. These Talamaska-like scholars believe two things: 1) that C.C. Cooper plans to use the tunnels to control the surface world; and 2) that the Devil really does exist, somewhere in the depths of the haddies' domain. They intend to sneak Ali into the expedition to be their eyes and ears -- yet even their clever plans can't account for the most dangerous possibilities, like betrayal by one of their own.

Eventually Ike, Ali and Branch end up together in the same place, facing the ultimate evil, or what passes for it here, but it's a long, long hike to that point. The high-speed exposition of the opening, getting everyone into place for the actual expedition to the underworld, takes nearly a third of the book, and many, many things go unexplained. Who is C.C. Cooper, where did he come from, and why does he want to take over the world? Why didn't the military and scientific community ever make an effort to learn about the underworld from Branch and Ike before trusting them enough to send them back underground? All this seems to be glossed over merely to set the story up and get things finally moving.

spoiler alert

In the end, despite the high adventure of underground exploration and a few darkly humorous moments -- such as when the form embedded in the Shroud of Turin is suspected to be the image of Satan rather than Christ -- all the excitement leads to anti-climax. The haddies are not hellish, merely primitive, and Satan doesn't seem any more dangerous than a typical cult leader. Perhaps there was no way for Long to create a climax which matched the tension of his narrative. While maintaining some of the scope of Verne's novels, it lacks that author's sheer passion for new things. In places you might encounter some of Crichton's technical rigor, but too much information -- such as the actual appearance of a typical haddie, or Ike's experiences underground -- is withheld too long for no good reason, flattening rather than spiking the tension.

Perhaps the largest disappointment, however, is that of the promise of real terror. The Descent attempts to be thriller, SF adventure, and horror all in one, yet doesn't take enough chances with its story to bring that triple threat off successfully. There's too much here that's too much like stuff we've seen before.

Copyright © 1999 Charlene Brusso

Charlene's sixth grade teacher told her she would burn her eyes out before she was 30 if she kept reading and writing so much. Fortunately he was wrong. Her work has also appeared in Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Dark Regions, MZB's Fantasy Magazine, and other genre magazines.

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