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Confusingly, Underlife is the third book to be published in Robert Finn's "Adept" series (after Adept and Ex Machina), but in terms of the narrative, it's actually the first in the sequence. For some reason Robert Finn has gone all "George Lucas" and entered the world of the prequel. Sadly, he's also imitated Lucas by making this prequel a pale imitation of his earlier books.
Underlife briefly follows the adventures of Clipper, a small time London thief who stumbles into the middle of a fight on the London Underground involving two Adepts (people with magical powers). Clipper finds himself fighting for his own survival and that of Rachel, a woman he has only just met.
In Adept and Ex Machina, Finn introduced us to a world where magic powers are common place. Whilst this sounds fantastical, it always felt grounded it reality. In terms of plot pacing, the books were relatively slow-paced, giving us plenty of opportunity to get to know its characters. It was this human element, combined with a rather tongue in cheek sense of humour which made them so readable and set them apart from other would-be occult thrillers.
Underlife seems to lose sight of the strengths of the first two books. It focuses on highly undeveloped characters that never feel real or capture the reader's imagination. They are terribly ill-defined, so it's difficult to feel much sympathy for their plight or care about their fate. The two central characters - Clipper and Rachel - feel like artificial constructs, simply doing what the author needs them to do without any good reason. They react to things in a highly unlikely way, have awkward, stilted conversations and their relationship just never rings true. They feel weak and flat and this removes much of the interest from the book.
The plot also feels very weak and rather derivative. If you took out the limited magical element, there would be very little of substance. Although the action is very fast-paced (in the sense of it doesn't take long for everything to be done and dusted), it never feels exciting or grips the imagination. There are no dark secrets to be uncovered, no twists, double-crosses, no surprises. It feels as though the author had a vague idea of for a story, but couldn't think of a way to flesh it out into a full length story and simply published what he had. Whereas Adept and Ex Machina created and developed the mythology of Finn's characters, Underlife adds very little and points to an author unsure of where to take his idea next.
Although this is technically the first book in the sequence, you would be strongly advised to start with Adept and Ex Machina, before returning to this one. If you try and jump in with this volume, you will find yourself hopelessly confused and rather bored. There is little explanation of the powers of the Adepts or what they are fighting for. References are made to characters from later novels, yet little explanation is given as to how they fit in or why they are important. It is assumed the reader already knows this. Clearly Finn doesn't expect people to read the books in their narrative chronological order, but the order in which they were published and I'd strongly recommend you do this. In fact, you could easily read the first two books and give this one a miss completely, without in any way marring your enjoyment of the other titles
The reasons behind why this book is not as good are to be found in its length. This is a very slim volume, coming in at around 90 pages and always feels more like a short story than a novel. This is a core weakness. In Adept and Ex Machina, Finn took care to develop the characters and plot gradually, to suck the reader in and keep them hooked. Here there is not the time for that leisurely approach and the story definitely suffers as a result.
Underlife also suffers from the way it has been printed. The text is quite small which does not aid readability, and Finn adopts a different style to his previous books. Adept and Ex Machina all had short chapters with regular breaks in the text. Underlife has virtually none and passages are very long. This, combined with the small text, makes it quite difficult to read at times.
To make matters worse, it's pretty expensive. As a standalone volume, it costs £4.99 which for less than 100 pages doesn't represent great value for money. If you haven't read any of the books, you'd be better of buying the combined Underlife/Adept volume, which you can pick up new for just £7.99. If you don't mind reading a book on screen (or are posh enough to own a Sony EBook reader!), you can even read it for free on the Snow Books website.
After the highly enjoyable Adept and Ex Machina, Underlife proved a huge disappointment. As a short story, it doesn't contain enough excitement or interest to keep the reader reading; as a development of the Adept mythology it adds nothing. Let's hope the next time Finn returns to this world writes a full length novel which will allow him to play to his strengths of combining well developed characters with slow-burning, compulsive story-telling and an ear for tongue-in-cheek dialogue.
Snow Books, 2008
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