Resident Evil: Underworld (S.D. Perry)
The fourth book to be published in this consistently average series, Underworld is the second original story, with the majority of the series being a novelization of one of the hit video games, and it focuses on five renegade S.T.A.R.S. members and their assault on a sinister Umbrella compound. Will the new plot and all-star cast be enough to give this series its first truly great book, or will this story deliver yet another solid story that falls just short of excellence?
In Underworld, we are basically treated to two separate stories that dovetail at the very end. Though the S.T.A.R.S. team arrives at the Umbrella compound together, on a mission to retrieve crucial evidence against Umbrella, they are very quickly separated and remain so for nearly the entire rest of the novel. The first story will be more familiar to Resident Evil fans, Resident Evil 2's Leon Kennedy and original character John Andrews find themselves trapped underground and decide to pursue the head of the facility. It isn't long before they end up trapped in a series of simulated environments populated by gradually more formidable monsters. With limited ammo and only themselves and a random Umbrella employee to rely on, they must use their wits to overcome their deadly foes. This is a quite enjoyable tale due to the dynamic between the three men, and because it provides some enjoyable action sequences that showcase the characters' resourcefulness in the face of stacked odds. Leon and John's part in Underworld is fast paced and true to the spirit of the franchise. The second story, in which Resident Evil's Rebecca Chambers, Resident Evil 2's Claire Redfield, and original character David Trapp must evade capture topside while Umbrella forces desperately try to flush them out, reads more like a hurt/comfort fanfic than a proper story. We spend an awful lot of time hearing about how badly injured the female characters are, especially 19-year-old Rebecca, and of course it falls on the calm and strong David to protect and lead them. This part is unlike anything you will ever experience in the Resident Evil setting, and quite bizarre in the worst sense of the word. The lack of any sort of horror is bad enough, but through in the increasingly sappy relationship between David and company and this sub plot drives the quality of the book down every single time it pops up.
Underworld is perhaps most noticeable for what it doesn't have as opposed to any quality that it actually does possess. Though one half of this novel deals with S.T.A.R.S. members fighting their way through a gauntlet of terrifying monsters, it doesn't actually have the most enduring and popular creature ever featured in the series: plain old zombies. The Umbrella compound hasn't been touched by any strain of the virus, and all of the workers are very much alive, despite what is initially hinted at. Three of our five heroes only encounter any form of Umbrella mutant at the very tail end of the novel, instead spending their time evading a paramilitary team summoned to vanquish the intruders.
Although the idea of a Resident Evil novel without the most basic element of any Resident Evil story is a promising and unique one, it gets mitigated a bit by the fact that this story is essentially the exact same one we saw in the previous original story in this series, Caliban Cove. Once again a team of renegade S.T.A.R.S operatives must infiltrate an isolated Umbrella base to shut it down and recover some item that will help them in their greater quest against the diabolical mega corporation. There was a lot of potential here to do something great about the extent of Umbrella's operation, or some sort of intrigue-heavy thriller, but instead we just get a narrowly focused rehash of a previous book. Entertaining, but without substance.
Underworld makes use of several high-profile characters from throughout the series, along with the survivors of the Caliban Cove mission. There isn't a lot of time spent characterizing them, however, and it seems as though this book was more concerned with throwing a bunch of big names together than giving anybody a meaningful portrayal. The only thing that ends up sticking out among the characters is the enjoyable dynamic between. The two work well together and trade some enjoyable banter as they handle the few bio-engineered creatures featured in this book. Claire, Rebecca, and David are barely touched by comparison, with only a few hints at romance between Leon and Claire to liven up an otherwise totally bland appearance by the Resident Evil 2 heroine. David and Rebecca are basically one note characters in this book: David the unflappable team leader, Rebecca the tenacious kid. The new villain is some spineless executive type who spends the entire book hiding and watching the S.T.A.R.S do battle with the various Umbrella monsters. He is so worthless that I've forgotten his name just two days after finishing the novel. In terms of character developments, the star of this book is actually Trent, the shadowy support character who has popped up throughout this series of novels to help our heroes with crucial information at just the right moments. Here we learn about his motivations behind his vendetta against Umbrella, and a bit more about just how devious he is. Luckily, there is enough left to mystery for the character to maintain his somewhat sinister persona, but it was good to finally get some revelations regarding this long standing ally.
This book, like the others in the series, is a relatively well written story. There is a pretty exciting chase scene to get the novel kick started, and there are a handful of tense scenes involving the horrors thrown at David and Leon. The dialogue in general is well written, and a far cry from the horrible mess that Resident Evil fans are used to encountering in most of the games. It's probably a bit short of great, but there aren't any lines that are going to make you think back to Jill sandwiches either. A few of the points of view suffer from being stilted and utterly unimaginative. The gloating villain and hulking, primal beast known as the Fossil are two good examples of this. The Fossil's point of view in particular didn't get a whole lot done and just came across as remarkably cliché.
Although it is far from bad, it is lacking one of the strongest elements in the prose for this series. Author S.D. Perry has consistently done a phenomenal job of describing the zombies, using all manner of grotesque imagery to convey just how disgusting these creatures are. Whether it is the sound of their flesh falling off their bones, or the smell of a human body that has been deceased for days, Perry has always brought her A-game when the opportunity presented itself to flesh out the iconic victims of Umbrella's bio-experimentation. While she does a credible job of bringing some of these same traits to the myriad of genetically engineered creatures in this book, it simply doesn't have the same effect. Whether it is because they lack that same sense of humanity or because it was simply hard to describe more alien creatures, this book never manages the gory excess of some of the others, and the atmosphere suffers quite a bit as a result. The atmosphere doesn't get much of a boost from this setting either. While Perry was able to elaborate quite successfully on the musty decay of the Spencer Mansion and the complete devastation of the Raccoon City Police Station, there just isn't much here to work with. The facility is in working condition and completely tame, with even the synthetic environments John and Leon encounter seemingly utterly pedestrian.
Underworld is an interesting experiment with the Resident Evil formula, but it isn't a great novel in its own right. Fans of the series will want to check this out just for the sheer novelty of Resident Evil sans zombies, but despite its relative accessibility, people who aren't so enthused about the series will want to stay away because of the flimsy characters and generic story.