For the first round of this year’s Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC2), my team has been assigned 28 books to ultimately whittle down to three semifinalists. To that end, we have further divided our batch so that each judge will be assigned 11 or 12 books to scout for the rest of the team. And as a reader with a penchant for tales about uncovering suppressed history, Things They Buried by Amanda K. King and Michael R. Swanson was a natural choice as one of my assignments.
Things They Buried occupies an odd space where it’s difficult to sort out whether the plot is clear from the opening chapters or opaque until much later in the book. In a way, it’s both. The story takes place in a secondary world port city, featuring a pair of central characters who escaped childhood captivity when the scientist who had enslaved them was caught in an explosion that destroyed large portions of the desalination plant that represented his crowning achievement. But even as adults, they can’t rest easy until they know for certain he is dead. And with children once again disappearing around the ruined plant, they have a sneaking suspicion that they haven’t seen the last of him.
In that way, it’s not complicated: the physical and psychological excavation of this place of horrors drives the whole book. It’s the setting that makes it feel complicated. The story takes place in a secondary world with several non-human races, all with their own abilities and manners of speaking. And without much infodumping up front, it’s easy for the reader to feel lost in a swirl of new information. But the racial dynamics are secondary to the main plot, and while it may take a few chapters to get used to the slang, it’s ultimately not a difficult read. The worldbuilding adds some color and will be particularly appreciated by readers who want their setting to feel like it could be an RPG, but the heart of the story is about confronting monsters, physical and psychological.
I don’t tend to like books that feel like a dungeon crawl, and Things They Buried sometimes leans in that direction, with disorientingly expansive settings full of dangers. And perhaps it should come as no surprise that I didn’t really think there was enough plot to support the book’s length—to me, it would be well-served by trimming an encounter or three. But it kept me going with storytelling and characterization. Even when I had a hard time grasping how the labyrinthine setting fit together, the individual scenes came through clearly and powerfully. And I was impressed by how many quality character perspectives we saw in a single novel.
The two main characters are formerly trafficked children who have amassed a degree of wealth through less-than-savory means. They’re not especially likable, but it’s easy to cheer for them, given the alternatives, and the book does a good job exploring the traumatic past that won’t let them go. They’re well-drawn, and they needed to be. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the perspective of the side characters. The greedy, cowardly thief, scorned by the leads for his dimwittedness and place among what they see as an inferior race, seemed destined to be a disposable fringe character, useful as nothing more than comic relief. But by the end of the story, I felt we knew him as well as we knew the leads, and his hopes and dreams were perhaps even more compelling than those of the main characters. Similarly, a mercenary introduced in the second half looked like throwaway muscle and turned into a full-fledged character in his own right. It’s this depth of the cast that sustained a story that otherwise could’ve felt repetitive in the back half.
Unfortunately, there is one side character that misses badly, with an extensive backstory introduced late in the game to provide a clumsy and unnecessary sequel hook. It does facilitate a nice moment from one of the main cast, but the main story has a satisfying ending on its own. It doesn’t need a sequel hook, and if it’s going to have one, it needs to be better foreshadowed than it was. While the overall strength of the characterization makes it possible to overlook one miss in the secondary cast, it’s a jarring note as the tale builds to climax.
One area that did feel primed for more story was interspecies politics. The narrative acknowledges the rampant prejudice among races, but only gestures at addressing it. That’s not necessarily a failing—nothing demanded that it be a major subplot, and there’s nothing wrong with a pair of leads that have some deeply unlikable character traits—but it furthered my impression that the various nonhuman races were introduced to provide a setting for multiple stories (and perhaps for RPG campaigns) as opposed to being an essential element of this tale in particular.
Overall, it’s good work. It ran a bit long for my tastes, and I didn’t like the sequel hook, but the main story was engaging throughout, and the side characters were unexpectedly excellent. And for those who enjoy monster encounters more than I do, Things They Buried could be a real favorite.
Recommended if you like: dungeon crawls, myriad fantasy races, excavating traumatic backstories.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Self-Published and Features Mental Health, and it is also written by Two or More Authors, they Use Initials, and it features a pair of Antiheroes from Nonhuman Races. And while it’s firmly science fantasy, it’s undoubtedly urban, and so would fit reasonably as Urban Fantasy, if not traditional UF.
Overall rating: 14 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC Score: I will be recommending Things They Buried for the quarterfinals, but it will not be my top recommendation of the first round, and its progress will depend on the opinions of my teammates. If it does progress, it will do so with a score of 7/10 from me, with other judges adding their own scores as they finish it.