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This is an action-adventure thriller with horror undertones; you just have to keep telling yourself that it’s a thriller, hope for the best, and suspend your disbelief. The book starts off really strongly, with three or four excellent chapters detailing weird and horrifying things happening to various people around the globe. That’s always a good start. If only the middle and end had fulfilled the early promise of the book. It’s relatively fast-paced, but extremely long, and by the end, the reader is more than ready for it to be over. And like many contemporary thrillers, at times Long has written this one like it’s all but ready to become a screenplay.

Spoilers follow — beware!

Brief plot summary: The world discovers that there is a vast network of deep underground caves and that a primitive, vicious race of near-humans has been inhabiting those spaces since the dawn of time, periodically venturing to the surface to steal slaves and loot. Not a bad premise, eh? It’s pretty darn good, actually, but it does jump the shark when Long throws in the fact that these underground dwellers (called “hadals”) are led by a seemingly immortal leader who is the historical inspiration for Satan. Yep. Satan. It works, barely, and after a fashion, but I’d really like to have seen that whole bit excised. Religious undertones and themes in thrillers are just fine by me, but they have to be done well, and this one triggers my suspension of disbelief just a bit much. The final two-thirds of the book is taken up with an evil corporation’s expedition to map the cave network, bringing along various scientists, soldiers, and a linguist nun (Long tries to introduce quasi-religious elements whenever possible, and they just don’t always work).

I’m always reluctant to criticize an author for what he didn’t do, but frankly, Long doesn’t go for at least one obvious plotline that he probably should have: the brief period of open warfare between the hadals and the world’s militaries. That all happens off-screen — with the slaughter of literally millions of humans and hadals — which is extremely annoying. That could have filled a significant portion of the book, and might have been more entertaining than what he did present. More military science fiction and less stereotypical corporate greed and Satan-hunting might have been just what the doctor ordered.

There is a sequel to Descent (entitled Deeper), and I’m really of mixed minds about whether to continue with what has become a series. If I do pick up the sequel, it’s probably not going to be right away or for full price. I give it 3 stars out of 5, and offer a weak recommendation for this title if you enjoy thrillers.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers