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Book Review: Under Ground by S.L. Grey

underground-978144726648801Under Ground is the new novel from S.L. Grey – a collaboration between The Three author Sarah Lotz and South African writer Louis Greenberg. The story takes place in The Sanctum, a luxurious survival structure buried deep underground in Maine. The Sanctum is a paranoid survivalist’s dream, anyone can buy an apartment for the right price. At the start of Under Ground, a flu pandemic hits America, driving the East coast into a panic and causing a number of families to flee to the safe haven they have bought into. However, the danger doesn’t really begin until the air lock is sealed and the inhabitants are safely locked away from the outside world…

At its heart, Under Ground is a subterranean murder mystery and bears all the hallmarks of one. Characters and entire families are painted in broad brushstrokes that almost amount to stereotypes. The redneck family with a love of Jesus and guns, the secretive facilities manager and the rich couple with a small handbag dog. Whilst infuriating initially, the detail and intrigue of the book is slowly built up as the first murder lights the touch paper in a simmering atmosphere of paranoia and resentment.

Writing collaboratively is notoriously difficult yet Lotz and Greenberg build a coherent voice, taking in pop culture references that feel current and gently add layers to their characters throughout the book. One of the key strengths of Under Ground is the nuanced way in which tension is built, starting with the families realising that corners have been cut in the building of The Sanctum, rendering it far less luxurious than the brochure had the buyers believe. Whilst the way in which The Sanctum is cut off from the outside world is somewhat contrived, the effect it has on the inhabitants of the bunker is superbly written. Cutting the characters off from the internet and television and also limiting the water supply is the final straw that ramps up the tension, causing tempers to flare, secrets to be revealed and motives exposed. By stripping away the trappings of the modern world, numerous references about the pervasiveness of social media and the internet hit the mark; S.L. Grey presents characters in their most simple, basic form free to follow their instincts – most of them being unsavoury.

The true triumph of Under Ground is not just the way in which the tension is built but the subtlety of the writing renders it very difficult to fathom who the killer actually is. A number of obvious suspects are brought to the fore early and stay there throughout the story but the book is written from the multiple perspectives covering different timeframes  making it hard to pin down who is where at any given moment. Without entering into spoiler territory, Under Ground keeps the reader guessing until the last word of the very last page.

Under Ground is a book that avoids easy categorisation, part murder mystery and part apocalyptic fiction, it ticks a number of boxes for genre fans. Its prose is interesting and its pacing gently coaxes the reader along before dragging them by the scruff of the neck through the story. Under Ground is a thrilling read that plays with readers’ expectations and delivers a story with enough twists and turns to allow almost all of the characters to be a suspect at some point. Under Ground is a taut and tense book that will drag readers to the final page still unsure of what to expect, it also teaches a valuable lesson to the paranoid – sometimes finding a place to ride out the apocalypse is only half the battle…

DAN HOWARTH

Publisher: MacMillan
Hardback (352pp)
Release Date: 16 July 2015

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