The sixteenth book I’m reviewing is Atomic Underworld: Part One by Jack Conner, the first of the ‘Atomic Underworld’ duology, which itself is a prequel to Jack Conner’s ‘Atomic Sea’ series. The book is billed as Lovecraftian steampunk fantasy, which is to say that it takes inspiration from the otherworldly horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft and the speculative alternative history of steampunk sci-fi. In its execution I would also add ‘noir’ or ‘mystery’ to the genre. It’s a good mix, and the various pieces work well together.
The story’s protagonist is Tavlin ‘Two-Bit’ Metzler, a professional gambler and general rouge living in the subterranean city of Muscud, on the banks of the Atomic Sea. This city is one of several underground cities primarily inhabited by mutated humans, but also inhabited by ordinary uninfected humans, mutated animals, and members of various sentient pre-human species (some rather slug-like, some blob-like, and some arthropod-like). These cities are in the sewers of the larger metropolises above ground, and their primary authorities are multiple religious cults and various rival gangs. When Tavlin’s old friend and full-time mob boss Vassas has several members of his gang die under strange circumstances, Tavlin is asked to investigate. His investigations put him in the middle of a dangerous adventure centering on a strange weapon which the cults and sentient pre-humans are all desperate to get their hands (or tentacles) on.
The best thing about this book was its incredible level of description and texture. Muscud and the cities near it are disgusting places. They’re slimy, they stink, everything is damp and crawling and infected, and the descriptions are written with skin-crawling vividness. All of the mutant creatures, all of the alien-like underworld denizens, were described excellently. The quality of the writing was also very good, with few errors. I did feel like the characters drew heavily from crime-drama clichés, but that’s not so terrible. These kinds of characters are used because they’re effective. Maybe we’ve all seen movies with some fedora-wearing cigar-chomping pistol-waving mob boss shouting profanities before, but that doesn’t diminish the character’s entertainment value.
The book was heavy on action, with chases and gunfights familiar to anyone who’s read or watched any kind of mystery or crime dramas. The difference of course is that these fights are here taking place in a slimy underground city, which allows for some different approaches. The fights were well-written as well, however due to the way the story uses them, I would dispute the book’s Lovecraftian label. In a Lovecraft story, there is always a sort of creeping dread pervading the narrative. The characters in a Lovecraft story are victims of hellish otherworldly forces gradually driving them into unspeakable terror and insanity through the influence of eldritch alien gods. In Atomic Underworld, there are (or at least seem to be) eldritch alien gods , and there is dread, but the dread doesn’t pervade the narrative. The book doesn’t feel like a horror story. With a cocky rogue for a protagonist and with mobsters out of a 1940s noir film chasing each other through an urban jungle, the book feels more like action/adventure than it does horror. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is worth noting. It’s also worth noting that this book ends on a complete cliffhanger, which may annoy some readers.
On the whole, I enjoyed it. The detail was impressive and the story was engaging, and the odds are good that I’ll buy and read the second part of it.
And now once again, the plug. If you liked this book review, you can see my others here: New Book Review 1–New Book Review 2–New Book Review 3–New Book Review 4–New Book Review 5–New Book Review 6–New Book Review 7– New Book Review 8–New Book Review 9 –New Book Review 10–New Book Review 11–New Book Review 12–New Book Review 13–New Book Review 14–New Book Review 15