Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Dungeon Vol. 1: The Black Tower - Review by SE

SE rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Black Tower (1988) is full of forced action and lost opportunity. In any event, I thank the Goodreads Sword & Sorcery groupread that enabled me to revisit a series I thought I missed out on. If you like to be constantly bait-n-switched without reason, then this book is for you. Since it is the anchor for the series, I don't plan on reading more.

The Concept: Set ~1870, the aristocratic Englishman Major Clive Folliot goes exploring across the world for his missing brother Neville. The premise has a "lost world" pulp vibe (i.e., an alien world in which the protagonist is teleported/transported to and cannot return to earth) and that world is essentially a hostile prison for beings across time & space. A few instances, the book evoked emotions I last felt while watching the 1967 TV series The Prisoner or the 2004-2010 TV series The Lost. As the introduction explains, Byron Preiss had asked Philip José Farmer to edit and oversee the Dungeon series. Richard A. Lupoff was chosen to lead this (but it is unclear if Farmer selected him) with Volume 1: The Black Tower (1988).

What worked:
-Farmer's introduction to the series & the concept of the "Dungeon"
-The pull of the mysterious disappearance of Neville; this premise kept me in the book the duration.
-Bonus sketches/illustrations ostensibly drawn by the protagonist
-Occasional, brief scenes that deserved more than a paragraph (i.e., the plight of enthralled giants, and the impregnation of spider eggs into human bodies)
-User Annie's futuristic (~1999) language (which mention motherboards, and downloading); for a 1988 novel, this take on future vocabulary was entertaining and fairly accurate.

What did not work:
(1) The promise behind the cover and title: The cover by Robert Gould is awesome. It has stuck in my head for 30+ yrs. However, it promises a Heroic Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery story, and the book is Sci-Fi adventure. My initial, ignorant impression was that the book may be like the 1984 Deathtrap Dungeon experience in which a hero is trapped a grim prison and must fight his way out (at least that cover matched the milieu).I don't think Major Clive Folliot ever wears a cape while wielding a sword either. The first third of this book is set in ~1870; then it's a mix of modern and futuristic elements. "The Black Tower" title seems off too; there is a black tower which is termed the City of Q'oorna, run by a khalif who spares the explorer's crew and puts them into a dungeon of sexy women! (an exclamation used to mirror the author's style) ... but we do not return to this tower or khalif, so...whatever.

(2) Embarrassing Sexism: Clive's constant desire to have sex with every woman undermines his deep feelings for Annabella Leighton, his love interest (stuck on earth as he explores the Dungeon). It is laughable to read chapter after chapter with him observing women as sex objects; expect descriptions of boobs, hips, and lips. Clive even has carnal desires for his relatives stuck in the dungeon! Cripes. Here's my favorite as Clive meets an alien lady with alabaster white skin:
"The magnificent woman touched the emerald that lay against her bosom, and Clive found himself wondering at the likely color of the areolae of her breasts." (p310)
(3) The conflict is "Clive vs.... ??? ". Maybe the conflict is against the Q'oornans (which are labels for people/things that might be ruling the strange Dungeon) but Clive fights people/things that are not Q'oornan constantly. Several prisons and military outpost exist, but they are all run by other prisoners. The final climax is not at the original Black Tower (i.e., the center of Q'oorna, the first outpost we experience in The Dungeon proper, and the title of the book) but features some other random tower with other random antagonists.

(4) The cool stuff relating to the main mystery is sidelined. Beyond the Black Tower bait-n-switch, the few links to a real story are sparse. For example, Clive's brother's notebook appears abruptly (mysteriously providing communications), then disappears for a long time; when it eventually reappears, it is given scant attention. On the other hand, the book is full of random conflicts that don't matter from chapter-to-chapter. In short, the pretense of "mystery" allows Clive to randomly explore, attack, befriend, and wander without reason.

(5) The author seemed lost: The formula was clear for each chapter: introduce new ideas then toss them. Many times the main story arc was disregarded and we are treated to campy, fireside discussions amongst the characters echoing the author's lack of direction. Here is my own distillation of these silly discussions:
"Why are we banding together?"
    [no answer since no ones knows why]
"What should we do now that we are stuck again?"
    "Let me tell you, the plot calls for us to do something, dammit sah (~sir)!"
When first stumbling into the Dungeon, and climbing a mountain, the characters find themselves stuck (they can't descend). But wait, there is a mysterious coffin here...and it seems tall. Yes it is. In fact, there is a trap bottom under the body and inside are ropes to climb down. Perfect, let's take them and go! (That is actually a true spoiler of a minor scene) and it represents the constant pseudo-action. Essentially, the action has to keep going, and every few pages when the group is in a bind, a meaningless solution presents itself.

Conversely, in the middle of action sequences we are treated with forced sides, i.e., when Shriek is introduced and spearman threatens the group, Clive decides to calmly experiment with telepathy to someone back "home" (for a few pages of dialogue).

Instead of closing the loop on the key story arcs, the final chapter (named "Chang Guafe") even springs a new character on us. In Farmer's intro, he actually calls out Chang as being a great element (maybe, but it is poorly placed in the story, and poorly utilized).

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