Ian Lehrer’s The Deeping Well is a dense, exciting tale of the subterranean. Set entirely in the caverns, tunnels, passageways, and cities carved in rock below the surface, Lehrer brings to life a richly detailed world, complete with many distinct cultures. There are the underdwarves, portrayed here with a stratified, militaristic religious society, and the dark elves, present at the edges of the world but often deadly and malevolent, and the gnomes, represented here by Flannyrd, a curious, wise, and well-traveled woman who initially seems to be a mere trader.
Each culture comes with a distinct history, lore, and language, sometimes revealed by scholarly articles included in the text, but more often by little details sprinkled into conversations or situations or through discoveries by the characters. The caverns and tunnels are full of danger, whether dangerous falls and climbs, beasts that hunt in the shadows, rushing underground rivers, foul undead scavengers, or nefarious villains. This world, with all its rich detail and differences from the surface, fills the story with a strong, gritty flavor of somewhere wholly different from what we know. Light and food, both in limited supply, are constant concerns, and Lehrer’s imagined societies all have ways of dealing with the harsh darkness that surrounds them.
The most interesting and most central race of deep dwellers in this story is the Ta’tlan, an ancient race of warriors. The main character, Cagtlan, starts the book in training to become one of the elite warrior caste, the Ayengalli, in an enclave of the Ta’tlan. These warriors fight with two swords, one to kill, one with hooks to catch or break weapons, and Lehrer’s descriptions of combat are vivid, exciting, and easy to follow. They also use Litanies – meditations that give them keener perception, the ability to cloak themselves with shadow, or the frenzied passion of fire. The Ta’tlan culture has multiple castes, a long history, and a complex religious and cultural tradition, and figuring out the intricacies of how this all works is one of the real pleasures of the book.
The story feels episodic, with distinct breaks and travel between locations, as Cagtlan and Flannyrd embark on a journey that takes them far across the underworld in pursuit of an ancient mystery and a treacherous enemy. Their quest changes shape and grows in importance as they begin to understand the forces arrayed against them, and as they find companions and villains along the way. Cagtlan is steeped in his culture, but he begins to understand more about its origins in antiquity, and he realizes some of the lessons he’s been taught make him weaker rather than stronger.
There’s a ton here for fantasy fans. Magic, epic battles, victory, loss, poison, schemes, assassins, traps, sneaking (a lot of sneaking), ancient lore and artifacts, and lots of growly dwarves. Surrounding all of it is the rich, living world Lehrer has created below the ground, affecting all of the people and the cultures in ways that feel practical, natural, and ancient. Some books have a bunch of backstory and lore, and you end up bored to tears reading yet another Elvish poem or song of the trees or whatever. Here, Lehrer gives you enough juicy details to spark interest and give context but not so much that it ever feels like didactic showboating or a chore.
A rip-roaring fantasy adventure with all the right trappings and a grimy, grim, and new world to explore. Highly recommended.