Tl;dr: 4.5 stars. Great setup to a new series with some caveats. This is not a dungeon core or monster core novel, and some of the initial setup doesn’t have a direct payoff in this novel.
Sub-genre: Creamy Action/Adventure LitRPG with small dungeon building.
Long Review: Spoilers
The MC is an ex-computer programmer who now works a low-level job to make ends meet. His only solace is playing video games with his coworkers, but the amount of time they have is diminished each week as their jobs get in the way. In addition, their boss, a spoiled kid named Ryan, is taking part in their guild raids and making the game less fun for the other players.
In their penultimate battle, Ryan, as a thief, charges into the midst of combat with a dungeon Lord (Lord Kael). Of course, charging in with a thief character is a terrible idea, and the MC (Edward Wright) has to make a decision whether to help the thief or to let him die so the rest of the team can take out the dungeon lord. He decides to let the thief die.
The game is a one-life game, so if you die in it, you lose your character. This leads to a confrontation with Ryan at the computer store that Edward works at. Ryan berates Edward, has him work unpaid overtime, and then asks Edward to fire his coworker Lisa. In a fit of rage, Edward smashes Ryan’s head into the desk multiple times, leading to him being charged with attempted murder.
On his way to jail, he’s kidnapped by the boatman (Kharon) who offers him a deal. He can either side with the God Murmur and become a dungeon lord in the game he’s been playing, or he can take his changes with the regular cops. Edward decides to join Murmur and gives up his heart for a dungeon lord’s heart and get teleported into the game.
This setup reminds me of Hero of Thera, except this is one of those “Execution is crucial” details. In Hero of Thera, the MC is charged with multiple homicides and terrorism. He’s also in a futuristic World where he’s completely screwed, and has no friends or other ties keeping him to the World. He also sees firsthand the evil intent of the gods that he’s serving.
The introduction of all these characters into the first act is reminiscent of Lion’s Quest: Undefeated: A LitRPG Saga where we meet a bunch of characters that don’t have a payoff. Dungeon Lord doesn’t spend nearly as much time on this, but it is a violation of Checkhov’s Gun to introduce characters that don’t add up to anything. Because it’s just a plot McGuffin to move things along, it’s not a huge problem, but it is worth noting.
If I were to change the intro a bit, I would pull in Lisa to the main office. That would have Edward being berated in front of what seems to be the main love interest. Then, Ryan would fire Lisa. Edward would bash in Ryan’s head while Lisa pulled the phone away, making her an accomplice. Then Murmur/Kharon would make the offer to both parties, with Lisa ending up as an Eldritch Apprentice.
This would also raise the stakes in the love-making scenes, since Edward would be more conflicted about sleeping with a crazy woman that might also ruin his chances for another woman.
Back to the story.
The next scene is Edward saving a group of two people, apprentices from the now deceased dungeon lord Kael, from a group of Batblin monsters.
After the battle, they rest up inside the cave that Edward entered in through.
Here’s where we get into playing against type/trope. In the average Dcore/MCore novel, the hero is able to gain massive amounts of experience and skills from doing the most trivial of tasks.
Monster pees into toilet bowl.
LEVEL UP! +4 to dexterity,+3 to agility for avoiding splash back, +3 to intelligence for hitting the bowl!
If any game worked like the average DCore novel, then no hero would ever be capable of winning the game. Dungeon Lord takes the opposite approach, with heroes being overpowered relative to regular monsters, something that Edward is warned about in his encounter with Kharon, and that we see throughout the novel.
Edward carves out his own little niche in the cave, which is another thing against type. As opposed to DCore novels where the Dungeon can make super sophisticated buildings, the entire structure is based off of the MCs low-level and whatever materials are around. Transmutation of materials has a big penalty, and the more different a material is from what a dungeon needs, the worse the exchange rate on it.
During the night, Edward, a batblin named Klek, Lavy, a female wizard formerly apprenticed to Kael, and Alder the Bard, the other former apprentice to the deceased dungeon Lord, are attacked by spiders. Killing them only nets a few experience points.
The experience points gained are relatively low, in keeping with the overall World of the book where heroes level up much quicker than monsters. Also, there isn’t a huge amount of description that goes into exact stats and hit points per attack, another thing different from most DCore novels.
The group decides that their best bet for leveling up and earning loot is to become adventurers in town and gather supplies to make up for the lack of materials and transmutation limitations of their current hangout.
This pulls the book into a sort of fantasy political novel, with the main boss being a NPC who has delusions of martyrdom. It does spend a lot of time explaining why dungeon lords are so universally reviled, and why isn’t easy to simply decide to become a good dungeon lord.
The end battle is a final throw down between all of the different factions that have met into a brawl over the fate of a town.
The overall theme of the book is the question posed by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic with the Ring of Gyges. Does power inherently corrupt or can the virtuous man withstand the corrupting influence of power?
The issue here is that this theme is never fully developed in the context of the characters. The antagonist should be someone who is necessarily opposed to the protagonist on the basis of different moral views of the World. Yet the final antagonist is not inherently opposed to the worldview of the protagonist.
The antagonist wants emancipation for his people by pitting two countries into a war with each other that will leave both sides weakened, allowing his country independence. The protagonist wants to prove that power does not necessarily corrupt. These are not the conflicting world views.
The only arena for their differences to play out is in a town that is being set up for slaughter as a pretext to war, but the protagonist has no real reason to risk himself defending the area outside from gaining a new stronghold, (which may not happen if the attack isn’t at least partially successful), and proving himself to not be a bad guy.
This means that the final confrontation isn’t born out of necessity, but out of the MC deciding to save people without really having a huge amount of skin in the game regardless of outcome.
This is something Hero of Thera also gets right.
Hero of Thera uses a lot of plot coupons/coincidences to make the final confrontation be about the use and abuse of power, and the temptation of power at any costs, giving it more meaning. Dungeon Lord by contrast, does not use any plot coupons to make the final contest about the use of power, but will leave viewers with a “So what did we learn?” feeling at the end of it.
Thus the plot is very strong, but because the characters don’t represent varying shades of the premise of the book, the characters feel like the weakest part of this novel. Additionally, we see the dark/light dichotomy within this game is not really good/bad in the way that Hero of Thera uses, which makes the MC seem whiny and ungrateful for the help he’s been given by Eldritch deities, seeing that the supposedly good people are willing to engage in mass murder in order to maintain order.
Overall, 4.5 stars. It’s fun, engaging, and has a great plot, marred by the incoherency of the thesis with the actions of the characters.
Bonus Script Doctoring:
The final confrontation shouldn’t be between a dungeon lord and a martyr hero. The final confrontation should have been by someone worshipping a war God (or dark God, just not Murmur) who wants to use the bloodshed from ensuing war to charge up a ritual. This would reinforce the theme of the book with the final confrontation.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be that exactly, but something that reinforces the theme with the character’s actions.
If you enjoy this, you should pick up Hero of Thera
If you want a traditional MCore novel, try Threadbare Volume One: Stuff and Nonsense (Volume 1).