First published in July of 2015, ‘Under Ground’ was the fourth offering from S.L. Grey – a collaboration between the US author Sarah Lotz and South African author Louis Greenberg.

DLS Synopsis:
When the first signs of the AOBA virus reaching the US hit the media, panic erupted.  The virus had already swept across the majority of Asia, mercilessly killing those that came into contact with it.  And now the first reports of AOBA casualties on American shores had started to emerge.

Whilst around them families prayed for salvation in the face of the oncoming epidemic, those few that had the foresight to invest in The Sanctum hastily made their way to its secret location out in the middle of Maine.  With the population of the US bracing themselves for widespread mayhem, the Sanctum had become a salvation for the handful of families who had bought into it.

A luxurious, supposedly self-sustaining survival condo located in the middle of nowhere, The Sanctum was a project that Greg Fuller had put all of his money into building over the past few years.  Still in the process of building built, the half-complete underground bunker sported eight levels, including a gym, swimming pool, medical bay, recreation room, chicken coop and hydroponics room.

Yoo-jin and Stella Park, together with their computer-game-obsessed teenaged son, Jae, headed straight for the Sanctum as soon as news of the AOBA Virus hitting US shores broke.  Not far behind the Park family were the gun-toting preppers Cam and Bonnie Guthrie, together with their aggressive teenaged son Brett and timid daughter Gina.  Successful stockbroker and now single-parent Tyson Gill was next to arrive, with his young daughter Sarita and her young nanny Caity Sanford.

Wealthy tycoons James and Vicki Maddox (of Maddox & Maddox) together with their beloved shih tzu Claudette followed, with Will Broucher – the Project Manager to the build of the Sanctum – accompanying them along the way.  Finally the elderly Dannhauser’s arrived with their forty-two-year-old daughter Trudi in tow.

Following their arrival the impenetrable solid steel hatch to The Sanctum was locked shut by Greg Fuller, and with that, their last glimpses of the world outside until the situation changed.

The half-built luxury survival condo had now become the temporary sealed-off home to these rich and the paranoid families.  They barely knew each one another, other than when some of them had briefly met at the open sales day some months ago.  Now they will be spending their days in relative close quarters, as above ground the AOBA virus more than likely sweeping across the landscape.

They thought they were the lucky ones.  The ones who had had the forethought to be able to survive this thing.  But when Greg Fuller, the one man who knew all about the make-up and control of the Sanctum, is found dead in a pool of his own blood, the situation suddenly turns very bad for those deep within the underground confines of the bunker.  Suddenly those within the Sanctum are looking at each other differently.  Is there a killer amongst them?   Cut off from the world above, all of a sudden their underground bolt-hole no longer seems such a safe place to be…

DLS Review:
Oh how I love a good character-driven story involving the potential end of the world that’s set within some deeply claustrophobic confines.  And on paper Grey’s ‘Under Ground’ seems to offer up the near-perfect setting for one hell of a tense ride.

The characters in such a novel are undoubtedly pivotal to the novel’s overall success.  You need to have plenty of clashing personalities.  Plenty of conflict and mistrust bubbling away under the surface.  You need an array of different opinions and different backgrounds.  And to be fair – Lotz and Greenberg clearly knew this and have written in a collection of charterers that tick absolutely all of the boxes.

However, and this is a big HOWEVER, alongside this spectrum of personalities you need depth, well-established backstories, personalities to sympathise with, and above all else - believable characterisation.  Each of these characters needs to make some sort of connection with the reader.  The reader needs to be able to easily distinguish one from the other.  Names and family connections are only surface coatings.  You need to be able to get behind this and formulate an understanding of who each one of the characters really is.  Sadly, this is where the two authors fall short with ‘Under Ground’.

That’s not to say it’s a badly written tale.  Far from it.  At times you’re pulled into the claustrophobic tension that feeds the characters’ escalating anxiety by the hour.  However, time and time again you find yourself thinking “which one’s James again”, “Was it Gina, Trudi or Vicki who was acting odd just a few pages ago?” and “Was it this one that didn’t get along with him or her?”.  This is obviously borne from a missing connection with the reader because of a serious lack of characterisation.  It’s frustrating at times, because other than this, the story is a pretty damn good one.  But sadly it’s ultimately the novel’s biggest downfall.

That said, the whodunit aspect to the plot plays out pretty darn well.  As the reader you find yourself questioning each of the characters’ individual motives.  Throw in a seemingly never-ending torrent of bad decisions, some real plot defining twists, and a few hefty spanners in the works, and you’ve got a storyline that at least keeps you reasonably gripped.

Having a good old fashioned religious nutjob thrown into the mix, as well as a casually-racist young thug with his short-sighted aggressive gun-loving father (aka the Guthrie family) makes for a situation with plenty punch to it.  Alongside this you’ve got a small love interest from a couple of the youngsters and an (unfortunately all-too-uneventful) revelation from when some of the characters previously met.  As I said, it’s got the workings for a great read.  But at each and every point the authors never seem to push the tension far enough.

Finally, as the novel jogs thorough its final few chapters, you can’t help but feel that the authors copped out somewhat with the ending.  What could have been impactful and hauntingly bleak (an opportunity that arises perfectly at least in a couple of prime points) is instead replaced with a completely out-of-place sudden twist that feels utterly forced and more of a last minute decision to please a publisher.  And as the novel draws to its final close, the story stutters around with a few final completely unimpactful half-twists that leaves you more irritated than enthralled.

Nevertheless, it has to be said that ‘Under Ground’ was still quite an enjoyable read.  There are some moments where you’ll be holding your breath, some arguments and fights where you’ll be gripping the book with bubbling anger, and some points where you just can’t put the book down.  And the roving point-of-view certainly works in the novel’s favour (each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character).  Unfortunately the authors don’t manage to maintain this tension for long and more often than not you find yourself just meandering through the gloomy corridors and dank rooms alongside the almost faceless characters.

The novel runs for a total of 288 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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