The Beneath

The Beneath was written by S.C. Ransom and first published in 2015. It is an urban fantasy story with horror elements that focuses on a teenage girl who discovers the existence of a dystopian community living beneath the streets of London. The novel stands alone, so you don’t have to have read any of the author’s other work to fully appreciate it.

Lily has been having a rough time of it at school. She used to be rich and popular but the her parents lost everything. Now she lives with her Nan and everyone that she used to call a friend has turned against her. However, everything changes for Lily when she saves Aria from being hit by a train.

Aria is more than a little strange. She can’t read and seems confused by everything, from televisions to dogs. Lily soon learns that this is because she is seeing them for the first time. Aria has escaped from the Community – a group of people who have lived beneath London for centuries. In their culture, everything is dictated to them by the Farmer, who is the one person with control of the Crop – a deadly entity that keeps them all safe so long as they obey the Farmer’s strict rules to the letter.

Aria knows that she will be killed if she returns to the Community yet is torn by her sense of duty. She only came to the surface in the first place because she had been sent on a mission by Dane, the boy that she loves. Dane believes that the only person who can overthrow the Farmer lives on the surface but now Aria isn’t sure that she can go through with his plan. What would Lily say if she learned that Aria had only come to the surface to kidnap her?

The Beneath was a very unique novel and its rather mysterious blurb made me really eager to read it. Unfortunately, I found it to be another case where you can’t judge a book by its cover. The story really wasn’t what I was expecting and I had a lot of issues with both its themes and the way in which it was structured. Let’s take a look at each of these things in turn.

The story is written entirely in first person as told from the perspective of both Lily and Aria. While multiple narrators can be effective in the novel, I did feel that Ransom took this a bit too far. The characters don’t alternate chapters but instead tell the story in alternating paragraphs. It’s always obvious who is speaking, as Aria’s narrative is always in italicised text, but I still found this to be quite jarring.

This was mainly because it really broke up the flow of the novel, as Lily would start to explain about something (i.e. how a television works) only for the novel to immediately flip to Aria being overwhelmed by the moving pictures. I think that this is part of the reason why I found the first few chapters of the novel quite inaccessible. There was so much jumping around that it was hard to focus on what was actually happening. Fortunately, this did settle down after a while. When Aria is incapacitated in the second half of the story, most of the narrative responsibility falls to Lily.

Unfortunately, the clumsy narrative wasn’t my only issue with the story. From Aria’s initial descriptions, the subterranean world of the Community seems to be pretty eerie at first. The concept of the Crop is one that I found particularly frightening, as it is not seen until close to the end of the tale. Instead it is just portrayed as this foul smelling, slithering mass that has the power to eat people alive and can only be controlled by one man.

Unfortunately, The Beneath just can’t keep this up. As the story progresses, it soon becomes blatantly obvious what the Crop must be and how the Farmer is controlling it. In fact, the novel takes great lengths to explain every aspect of the story to remove any hint of the supernatural. It’s a personal thing but I also found this to be a disappointment. The mystery is what kept my interest. Giving it a mundane explanation took away a good portion of that.

Yet my biggest issue with the world building was the Breeders. Yes, this is exactly what you think it is. I only didn’t put a rape warning on this review because that isn’t exactly the case. No sex is actually portrayed in this novel and it is strongly indicated that the Breeders have been raised to believe that being a Breeder is a great honour, therefore the enforced breeding is technically consensual.

But is it though? Uninformed consent is not the same thing as consent. These are teenagers who are being forced to spend years repopulating the Community (they’re allowed to stop after their fifteenth child) and are fed to the Crop if they fail. This is horrifying but my biggest issue is that this isn’t really what the story’s about. This almost-rape culture is purely there to shock the reader. It doesn’t impact the story and, other than Lily, the other characters in the novel just accept this as it’s part of their world. If rape is included in a novel, I expect the novel to be about the rape. It should show consequences and focus on the impact that it has on the victims, such as in the likes of If You Find Me or After the Fire. It should never, ever be used as a bad thing that happens to women.

While the story itself started out well, my interest started to wane as it reached its half-way point. Everything was just a bit too convenient, from how Lily and Aria first met to how Lily ultimately saved the day. I don’t want to say too much here for fear of spoilers but I will just say that it just felt as though everything kind of fell into Lily’s hands without a struggle, up to and including life-saving McGuffins. While the novel did provide justifications for this, they just all felt rather flimsy and unconvincing. In short, the conveniences only really existed because the story needed for certain items to be accessible to a fifteen-year-old in order for the plot to happen.

The strongest aspect of The Beneath was probably its characters. Lily and Aria both provided very different voices and perspectives within the story, as both of them came from incredibly different worlds. You did certainly get the feel of Aria being an outsider due to her sense of wonder and lack of knowledge of the world above. Lily was a much more realistic modern teenager, frequently preoccupied by her interest in boys and nursing hurt from having fallen out with all of her former friends.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast were less great. I never really gravitated towards Will as he simply seemed to be there. He just existed to be a bit of a stock boyfriend, clearly interested in Lily from the start but still shoehorned into a bit of a fake love triangle to create tension in Lily and Aria’s relationship. Dane was also a bit uninteresting as he ultimately didn’t make much of a mark on the story. His plans for revolution are always a bit sketchy and he just seemed to lurk in the background, occasionally leading characters to where they needed to be for the plot.

Yet the biggest disappointment was the Farmer. Before the character was seen, I really did like his gimmick. I loved the idea of the leader being a farmer rather than some kind of warrior as it lent itself more to the idea of one who nurtures. Unfortunately, this didn’t really suit the man. He was just your typical tyrannical dictator with an ill-conceived ambition to take over London. His motivations for wanting to do so was never clear and so he just came across as being nothing more than a madman.

As you might be able to tell, on the whole I did not enjoy reading The Beneath. While early chapters did show potential, the plot was very weak and the execution felt clumsy in places. If you’re looking for a decent urban fantasy story set in London, I’d recommend checking out The City’s Son by Tom Pollock. The Beneath is certainly one that you could give a miss.

The Beneath can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: My Favourite Reviews of the Week | 11th May – BookBum

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