I always feel a bit sorry for the book I read after I’ve read a really great one, and The Dungeoneers, another Cybil-shortlisted speculative novel, did not do so well in comparison to Cuckoo Song. It’s a solid three-star sort of book, I liked it, but didn’t love it, and I think kids will enjoy it. The book is inspired by the role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, and uses much of the same terminology (I only know this because somebody pointed it out on Goodreads), which is either clever of the author or rather lazy – take your pick.
After admitting to pickpocketing, 12 year-old Colm Candorly is offered the opportunity to become a “rogue” with Thwodin’s Legion. Encouraged by his new mentor, Finn Argos, and along with his assigned adventuring party – swaggering barbarian Lena, nervy mageling Quinn, and drippy druid, Serene, – Colm successfully gets through the initial trial and is accepted to become a dungeoneer.
The party then undergoes intensive training at the Legion’s castle as they prepare to adventure through underground caves, tunnels, and dungeons in the hope of finding treasure, and avoiding life-threatening goblins, orcs, and traps. However, all is not well in the castle, and it is up to Colm and his friends to get to the bottom of it.
Similar to Harry Potter before him, Colm is new to this secret world and we learn all about the lore and legends through him. There is a long running joke about the many rules, which turn out to be different for each role: When faced with danger, rogue rule “Get behind the big guy”; everyone else’s rule: “Get behind the rogue”. Even though this is self-proclaimedly not a school, it is a world that will be very familiar to fans of Hogwarts – with lessons, teachers, bullies, and special skills.
The four central characters are well-developed and distinct, if a little caricatured, and make an interesting team. I like the slight twist that a girl is the barbarian (the muscle of the party), not the boy, and that there are women Masters as well as men. I appreciate that the author introduces diversity in skin color, with Serene and one of the Masters, though it goes no further than that.
The writing is light-footed and funny – Finn has a very entertaining riff on the euphemisms for rogues dying including “tripped his trigger”, “picked the wrong pocket”, and “unlocked his own door”. Everyone else? “They just die, plain and simple. But we rogues are much too clever for that.”
Towards the end, some intriguing questions are raised about the ethics of what they’re doing – why is it ok to steal from orcs and goblins? why is it ok to just hoard gold and not do anything with it? – but any exploration of these thoughts are left to a sequel.
Overall, though, I felt this was a bit of a trudge: Much of the book felt slow and not very exciting, which just doesn’t work for what’s meant to be an adventure book. The trials perked it up a bit, but they were less complex than I was hoping, and the end section does really rip along. But it felt like it should have been a 300-350 page book not a 400+ page one, so it will work better for readers with patience rather than those who want non-stop action.