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Seven Blades in Black (The Grave of Empire Book 1)

Fantasy / Sci Fi Book Review

This is the first time I’ve read anything by Sam Sykes. The guy can write. After doing a little research on him, I was interested to learn that he is the son of the talented Diana Gabaldon who wrote the Outlander series.

In this first book of his Grave of Empires series, we are introduced to Sal the Cacophony. Sal is a gritty Vagrant with a foul mouth and a list of people that betrayed her. Vagrants are Imperial mages that have spilt from the Imperium for one reason or another to make it on their own which normally means pursuing unsavory ways of making a living through bounty hunting or crime. Sykes’ dark writing brought Joe Abercrombie to mind as this is not a young adult story with black and white outcomes. He puts his characters through the ringer, forcing difficult choices. The choices of each character are sometimes painful to read and the results of those choices are rarely what you’d expect.

That’s a positive. This novel has aspects of a mystery who done it, mixed with dark fantasy in a completely unique world that neatly blends magic and technology. That’s not easy to do while keeping the world believable but the author walks this fine line incredibly well.

At its heart, Seven Blades in Black is a story of revenge. It’s no Count of Monte Cristo, but it belongs in the same bookcase, maybe living on a slightly lower shelf like an emo, second cousin.

Our main character, Sal, plots her revenge on all who betrayed her with the help of her trusted magical gun, the Cacophony. It’s told from the first person as Sal sits in a prison cell as she awaits her own execution. It only gets darker from there. As she knocks names from her list I was most impressed with the originality both of the names and of the creatures she has to fight along the way. The author didn’t fall back on overused D&D tropes to fill his world. He instead invented everything from terrifying lake monsters called kelpbrides to the far more terrifying Scrath, who was meant to bring peace and order to the cosmos. The names on Sal’s list were even cooler. She tackles foes like Vraki the Gate and Zanze the Beast, in a winking nod to magical mobsters who would have been at home slurping linguini with Pesci and Liotta.

Each of the characters has multiple dimensions. Sal herself is a wreck of a person driven by her need for revenge over all else, sacrificing friendships and lovers in her quest to get what she needs. We get a steady running inner monologue of Sal’s thoughts which are refreshingly self-aware of exactly how screwed up she is. Throughout the novel, you learn why, but as she makes poor choice after poor choice it’s sometimes hard to root for her. Yet, it feels like that’s the point. This is not YA fantasy, this is something darker. My only complaint about the characters is that Sal’s companions are far less interesting than her opponents. It makes sense for a revenge fantasy but I found myself caring very little for the fate of her companions.

The pacing of the novel keeps you on your toes but it did feel a bit too long. It felt like some of the sequences on the road could have been cut without making too much of a difference to the overall tone or story.

The only thing that didn’t work for me was the amount of swearing in the book. I’m all for swearing in books, especially in fantasy. For decades, it seemed taboo to have a fantasy character say a bad word, which seems ridiculous considering all of the crap they have to wade through on a daily basis. I also understand where it comes from, Sal is a deeply broken creature and constant swearing is a character building tool. I find it funny to write this as, in real life, I often struggle to watch my own mouth, lest you think I’m coming across as puritanical.

That said, I believe cursing can be used to tremendous effect when injected at the right time. That’s not the case here. Sykes’ gratuitous use of the word fuck often washes out the beauty of his prose. He’s a great writer with a hell of a gift for metaphor, but I often felt like Sal ping-ponged between an insightful Bukowski and an annoying frat boy. That was slightly disappointing because she seemed smarter than that.

It’s still definitely worth the read. It’s such a different world than any other fantasy you’ll pick up. That alone is good reason to buy it.

The Witchwood Crown: The Last King of Osten Ard Book 1

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Tad Williams wrote one of the best fantasy series ever written with his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn books. It captured the mooncalf Simon, a scullery boy who became high king through a riveting series of adventures. I feel like the grandfather in The Princess Bride when talking about it, there were princesses, sword fights, battles and Norns. It hit me at an impressionable age and I still remember the feelings it invoked as it sucked me into the world.

This is the follow up series, some forty years later, The Last King of Osten Ard, which begins with the Witchwood Crown. In this first installment, Simon has become an old man. He’s still the High King of the land but he’s a grandfather struck by the tragedy of the loss of a son and the raising of an errant grandson, Morgan. A lot of the old cast of characters is back, aged and greyed with experience and heartbreak. Being reintroduced to these characters felt like a homecoming that highlighted my own grey hairs and creaky knees. It was wonderful to reexperience the marshy constructed language of Tiamak and the yoda-like Binabik again, even as old men. Especially as old men. These two have always wielded outsider’s wisdom without sounding preachy or condescending, something rare in the fantasy genre of late. That wisdom has aged nicely into something timeless.

The kingdom is once again under threat, though that threat doesn’t have any sense of urgency behind it. In fact, that is the theme of the book. Coming in at roughly 750 pages, ninety percent of those pages is dedicated to world building, scene setting and foreshadowing. Which means very little of it is spent on anything actually happening. Picture the Fellowship of the Rings where ninety percent of the book is the long and expected party at the very beginning.

The threat appears to be from the Norn Queen, the immortal enemy that our cast of characters went head to head with in the first series. She’s waking up and gathering an army. I think. Not enough actually happens to truly know what the threat is.

Williams has a gift of bringing characters to life. He goes into extraordinary detail via the actions of the characters. His characters are amazing. That said, one of the big issues I have with the Witchwood Crown is that I don’t know who the protaganist is. Is it still Simon? Is it his grandson Morgan? Could it be the half Norn, half human, Nezeru? Is it Unver the clansman? I struggled with this. Williams introduced so many characters in this first offering that I don’t even know who I should be rooting for.  I don’t really even know who the bad guys are yet.

All of this set up, with so many characters, makes the pacing of the novel glacial. I don’t know if that is because of the author or because of how our tastes and consumption of media has shifted. I’m sure it’s a bit of both. When I was younger, in the days before the iPhone, I could sit down with a book and read for three or four hours straight, chewing through hundreds of pages. Nowadays, after five minutes my phone starts whispering to me with it’s buzzes and dings about things it pretends to be urgent which have no relevance to my life. These insidious devices have conditioned us to have the attention span of golden retrievers.

This is how we end up in the age of Marvel and bloated Star Wars offerings. The canon has already been established, so now they just throw CGI action scene after CGI action scene with very little story at us. And we eat it up. Creativity dies as profits rise. User created content is not much different. If it doesn’t shock you or crack you up in the allotted 30 second TikTok period, you’ve become an unfluencer.

I’ll hop off my high horse and say I’m glad Williams is going for this level of depth. It gives us a chance to get invested in these characters. To really care if something happens to one of them. That’s worthwhile. As a species, we need to rediscover our love of the written word. We express ourselves differently when we have time to think, time to make the words sing.

Williams knows how to do that.

That said, I’ll take another U-turn and say, I really wish he threw in a bit more action because this book flirts with Dickensian style prose which felt bloated even in the pre-television days.

I’m going to start the next book in the series soon. You get the sense the storm is building and I want to see what happens when it strikes.

The Wizard’s Crown: Art of the Adept Book 5

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

I am a big fan of Michael Manning’s writing. I have devoured the Mageborn series, the Embers of Illeniel series and several others along the way. He always manages to blend a well crafted plot with excellent world building and character development. He’s not quite at Sanderson’s level for inventiveness but the worlds he builds feel real. That is a gift.

I have been all in with the Art of the Adept series from the beginning. I love the way he introduced then explored the magic system. The main character Will has to rely on his own intellect, scrappiness and grit to get ahead in a world of sorcery and wizardry. Yes, there is a serious distinction between the two that defines the class system as well as what makes Will so special as a wizard.

The plot line and characters of the first three books are excellent. We have Will falling for a woman that is so out of reach it hits fantastic levels, which is why we’re reading it. Reaching for the unattainable is why you come to love the main character. If he has a superpower outside of wizardry it is self-confidence, he will figure out how to make the impossible work. He is surrounded by a strong cast of supporting characters. There’s the enormous warrior, aptly named Tiny, a gentle giant with the heart of gold. The bookish Janice who’s the only one in the Academy with the drive and intelligence to go deeper than Will to find obscure references that gives him an edge and moves the plot forward.

Then, of course, you have the wise sage that starts him off on the path of wizardry in the first place. His grandfather plays his role in the hero’s journey perfectly, teaching him wizardry and disappearing when he has learned just enough, with a cool catch that allows Will to tap into remaining pieces of Grampa’s knowledge when he’s desperate. Then, there’s the goddamn cat, quite possibly one of the coolest characters in any series.

The plot moves you along brilliantly, as it should in the ’10s and ’20s of this century. He doesn’t make you suffer through Dickensian descriptions like much of the older gems of this genre. Instead, he competes directly with television for your attention. You move from interaction to interaction fast enough to make every page interesting without falling into a Michael Bay action orgy. The approach allows for character building and a crescendo at the end.

However. I started getting the sense that Manning himself is getting bored with the series starting with the fourth book. By the fifth book, the enemies are becoming too cliché for my tastes.

Spoilers ahead.

If you are thinking about reading this now, stop here. Was there a good reason to turn the bad guy into a dragon? That seemed lazy, especially when most of the previous villains were so well thought out. Maybe that’s the only way he could justify the cold-heartedness of the primary villain, Selene’s dad. Sure, make him a giant lizard.

I didn’t believe it. Manning’s reveals are usually more creative.  The other thing I couldn’t believe in this one was how dark Selene got. She’s always had the capacity to go Sith lord but her transformation in this novel didn’t seem in line with the character who vowed never to become her father. There may yet be a twist here but I had a hard time stomaching that transformation. The final thing I couldn’t believe was how rapidly and viscously Tiny turned on Will. Even for all the crappy things Will has done, this didn’t seem warranted.

The thing I loved the most about Manning’s books is there is always a cool training sequence, the montage scene made popular by damn near every ’80s movie. This was also missing in this novel. He hinted at it with Will’s younger cousin but it would have been rehashing old ground to go through the same paces, so he rightfully skipped it. As a reader, it leaves you wanting. The thing I loved most about this book was the introduction of Evie, the slightly different flavor of goddamn cat that we had in the first books.

Overall, I highly recommend the first three books in this series but found myself wanting on this latest. I’ll keep you posted if Manning is able to close this series out in six with something that can’t be missed.

Queen of Storms: Book Two of the Firemane Saga

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Raymond Feist holds the status of mythical creature for me akin to Hercules, Thor or Pug. He was an author I read at an early age so I assigned him the same gravitas as Tolkien, Heinlein or LeGuinn. He was a forger of ways, an architect of worlds, a deity of character development.  The original Riftwar series is canon in my household.

It could be that I read him at such a young age that I place him on this pedestal next to Eddings and Lewis. The ten year old mind is easily and completely swept into new worlds. There are very few ten year old cynics pointing out the unbelievable and saying ‘nah uh’. Those ten year olds that do invariably end up joining young republican groups and should be avoided at all cost. I wanted to believe and he made it easy with a style and prose that made reading each page feel like a holiday. Even a stupid name like Pug didn’t deter because the character was so relatable.

That’s why I find myself dissapointed by this new series. The Midkemia world had a wonderful run and he did a brilliant job ending it in such a loving fashion.

This new world is boring. I can’t believe I’m saying that about a Feist novel. It’s like somebody took all the passion of Midkemia and Kelewan and threw it into a Vitamix with some Metamucil then strained it of anything resembling fun.

I believe he is trying to get a little darker and nuanced with his characters, a little more Joe Abercrombie perhaps, but he struggles with bereft and dirty. It comes across as stilted and unrelatable.  I just finished the second book and I find I could care less whether any of the three main characters live or die.  With Abercrombie’s work, you find yourself disgusted by the characters’ choices, hoping they’ll make better ones and rooting for them to do so.  When they don’t, you’re struck by the reality of dreams missed and lives changed.

Not here. Learning about Declan, Hatu and Hava is like learning about the trio of emo kids in high school that chose that path because they weren’t interesting enough to choose another. You talk to them for a while and realize that they’re not hung up on existentialism, they just can’t figure out another way to fit in. They gave up on being themselves to cosplay an outdated stereotype.

The plot isn’t bad. The general idea of the heir of a dying line being sent to a secret organization to protect his heritage and teach him some kick ass skills in order to protect himself is a good one. But the pace is glacial. Hatu doesn’t find out about an even cooler, second organization that can teach him about his Firemane powers until the end of the second book! Maybe I’ve grown used to faster pacing as that seems to be the trend in fantasy these days but if you go back to his old works, even when things are a bit slower paced, they were never boring.

It may be that Feist is getting old and he’s forgotten how to dream big. It may be I’m getting old and a lot more cynical. It’s most likely a combination of both.

Even with this bad review, I’m still going to pick up the third(final?) book of the series when it comes out in July. Maybe he’ll find that magic again as he closes this series out. I hope so. I need him to.

The Banneret: Blood of Kings Book 2

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

I love most of Duncan Hamilton’s books.  I’ve reviewed a number of them here before.  His new series, the Blood of Kings, takes place in the same world as all of the rest that Hamilton has created with his other series, the Wolf of the North, the Dragonslayer, and the Society of the Sword. The world is not too far off from our own which adds the believability of any good myth. He has a knack for creating cultures and putting the reader on the left shoulder of the characters as he tortures them in the various, delicious ways.

In the first installment of the series, The Squire, we are introduced to the main character Conrad.  As a child, Conrad is a victim of a demon attack that kills his parents.  He is rescued by a motley group of sell swords from a range of different cultures and fighting styles.  There’s not enough angst in the group to make a nineties grunge band jealous but there is enough conflict to make them interesting.  The band is loosely led by a banneret of the grey by the name of Nicolo.  He runs a democratic outfit which is already outside the norm for this type of company but it fits the personality and cultures of the group. Left with very little options, they take Conrad under their wing and make him a squire for their small company.  Along the way, they teach him the basics which runs the risk of formulaic fantasy.  Thankfully, it doesn’t turn into one.  Hamilton twists it into a mystery where he invites the reader to uncover who’s behind the demon threat for the crown.

The Banneret picks up eight years later.  Conrad is fresh out of the Academy and he now holds a Banneret title of his own.  In Hamilton’s world, this means you have earned the right to wear a sword in the bigger city and amongst gentlemen.  It’s like being certified a badass.  Hamilton doesn’t waste much time in the set up, doing us all a favor by throwing us back into the mystery.

Conrad’s nemesis from the first book (1st book spoiler incoming), a duplicitous little prat with the well fitting name of Manfred, is down on his luck after Conrad exposes his father at the end of the first book.  Manfred and his family lose everything except for a small chest of seemingly useless junk, some papers and an amulet.  Manfred is smart enough to establish himself as a get shit done in the shadiest way possible character with some elements of the criminal underworld.  It doesn’t take long for him to discover that the amulet is the key to the communication with these demons that gave his father a serious edge in all his negotiations.  Manfred quickly discovers this same power and starts carving out a small empire of his own.

In the eight years between books, the demon activity has sputtered out, leaving the crown to minimize its importance and quit dedicating resources to the problem.  In actuality, the demons have been upping their game behind the scenes.  When they do make their second book debut it’s with a lot more chutzpah.

They uncover a bit more about what the demons want and what they need to do to stop them from getting it.  At the end of the book, Conrad gets a bit of an upgrade which gives him a real chance of standing up to these powerful foes.  It’s a good story.

The thing that stood out is the undercurrent of loss throughout the books.  Conrad is heavily defined by the people he loses.  One of my complaints is that the losses appear to be painfully random, the result of crappy luck.  I think this is the author’s intent but when I’m reading epic fantasy I have this little kid side of me that wants there to be more meaning behind each loss.  But there isn’t.  Fantasy imitating life I suppose.  It leaves you feeling a little empty.

My other complaint is that there is a pretty small cast of characters and while they have been well developed, you don’t build a ton of sympathy towards any of them except the protaganist.  Again, I think this is the author’s intent.  Since his new life since losing his parents is defined by loss, his relationship with others is a bit standoffish.  This is a more mature theme than some of Hamilton’s other books.  Or, maybe I’m just reading too far into it.

Either way, I look forward to the conclusion of this trilogy.

The Unspoken Name

Fantasy / Sci-fi Book Review

The Unspoken Name is a beautifully written fantasy novel by A.K. Larkwood.  She builds a very unique world populated with very unique characters.  There are some excellent experiments with language in these imagined worlds.  The author introduces us to cleverly constructed names of people and places along with a pronunciation guide.  It feels a little like Tolkien’s studies in Elvish. 

Unfortunately, the novel didn’t draw me in.  I found myself struggling to care about the characters or their fates.  This was due, in part, to the slower pacing.  Our current world of fantasy feels like it is competing with streamed shows that are forced to deliver maximum impact in under an hour.  Characterization is ruthlessly replaced with action masquerading as relationship building.  Today’s stories have replaced the interesting elements of getting to know a character and how that character might react to others with a made for Netflix, Tinder-esque style of swiping right into relationships.  I don’t like it, but it certainly colors everything else I read.

Why not spend a goddam minute investing in the characters themselves so that we care?  Someone like Robert Jordan would never make it today.  His towering epic comes in at the monumental sum of 4.4 million words.  Reddit trolls love to bash his work as something that should have been cut down to a trilogy to satisfy today’s moth-like attention spans.  Those of us that did read this once upon a time felt like we really knew those characters (despite many of their puritanical roots), and became friends with them.  I don’t get that in a lot of fantasy I read today.  Characters are far more disposable, mass produced paper plate Redshirts meant to impart the seriousness of a situation.  They often succeed in that goal but their disposability also makes them entirely forgettable.  Perhaps character development is yet another casualty of social media.

To be fair to Larkwood, she spends time on her characters.  The problem I had was relatability.  These characters were so fantastic, so alien, that I couldn’t imagine myself in their place.  My only other character complaint was that two of the primary characters (Sethennai & Shuthmili) had similar enough names that I often confused them.  This led to several – why the hell would he or she do that moments.  This is a risk authors run when experimenting with language, the reader can get lost in those experiments.

The final critical thing I’ll share is that I spent a fair amount of time reading the book and I don’t really know what it was about.  I believe it’s about the journey that ensues when one chooses not to follow the paths that have been laid down for them by others.  This discovery of choice leads to a path to self actualization and awareness.  I may be reading too much into it but I also think there are subtle undertones of deeper meaning that I’m not picking up on.

The novel starts with an introduction to our protagonist Csorwe, best identified by the tusks that jut from her lower jaw.  She plays a critical role in the religious institution on her world.  Before she is set to meet her fate, a mysterious stranger, Sethennai, sweeps in and offers her a different choice that gives her an out from her religion without anyone, but her god, being the wiser.  She takes it and Sethennai becomes a mentor / father figure for her.

He has her trained in martial skills and she effectively becomes an agent for this erudite man of leisure.  Sethennai is the master of playing it cool but he has his own ulterior motives.  He is trying to claw his way back into power by getting his hands on the reliquary, an object of historical importance that will bring him some unknown, mysterious knowledge and capability.

Csorwe has a contemporary by the name of Talasseres Charossa (Tal), who was also taken in by Sethennai.  The two met on one of Csorwe’s first mission where Tal proved himself to be talented but an incredibly self-serving jackwad.  The two loathe each other.  Tal is an unlovable rogue but he is my favorite character of the book.  While he is narcissistic and filled with resentment and spite, he is also the most relatable and interesting character of the cast.  Later in the book you find out that a large part of his shitty personally originates from the hurt of unrequited love, not of Csorwe but another member of the cast.  This doesn’t excuse his behavior but certainly garners him some sympathy.

On another mission, Csorwe meets Shuthmili, another woman bound by her religion.  Csorwe offers her a similar choice to the one Sethannai offered her.  Shuthmili struggles with the choice which leads to some healthy introspection and a budding relationship with Csorwe.  The first book ends with both Csorwe and Shuthmili forced to confront the religions and choices of their past to in a showdown battle for the reliquary. 

It’s obvious that this book is the first in the series but the revelations at the end didn’t feel like enough of a conclusion for the story thus far, or a tease that had me wanting to come back for more.  Larkwood’s mastery of the language is obvious and evident and I often found myself envious at the beauty of her prose.  It was the narrative that I found lacking and because of that, I don’t think I’ll be picking up the next installation of the story.

The Kaiju Preservation Society

Fantasy / Sci-fi Book Review

Scalzi has crafted some pretty amazing, award winning science fiction.  The thing I love most about all of his writing is that he never takes himself too seriously.  The Kaiju Preservation Society is more tongue-in-cheek than most of his stuff and that includes Red Shirts.  Yet, he can take an idea that is a little ridiculous then add a Michael Crichton pacing to it that completely drags you in.  You happily chase him down each absurd rabbit hole and find yourself wanting more at the end.

In the Kaiju Preservation Society, our protagonist is a motivated young professional marketing / customer service director that is taking the corporate world by storm.  He works for one of the hot new delivery service companies, by the name of füdmüd, which puts the mood in food.  I can’t imagine having to type all of those umlauts while writing the book. I had to look up how to put one in the text ( Ctrl :  – then type the vowel if you’re wondering).

Anyway, he is a young corporate hotshot for all of the first half of chapter one before getting fired by his douchebag CEO, a Travis Kalanick clone, by the CEO offering him a job as a deliverator.  That’s the other great thing about this book.  Scalzi assumes that you are well read in all the nerd greats like Snow Crash and he lavishly spreads the references around like a sci-fi Easter Bunny.  He doesn’t make you work too hard for it as the main character or some side character will inevitably call out all references somewhere in the text because the author wants you in on the joke.

After he gets fired, thanks partly to the pandemic rolling in, our main character swallows his pride and starts deliverating food.  This is where he meets an old buddy of his from college who offers him a very black ops role that he refuses to tell Jamie (protagonist) anything about.  This is when the fun begins.  Jamie and the others who sign up with him get a baptism by fire of sorts where they are introduced to the kaiju firsthand.  The Kaiju Preservation Society (KPS) has found over time that this is only the real way to convince people that the kaiju are real.

For those unfamiliar, the most famous of the kaiju is Godzilla.  This was followed up with movies like Pacific Rim (surprisingly good) and several other poorly thought out and horribly Americanized Godzilla sequels.  The primary question is: if these things are real, where could they possibly be hiding?  The easiest answer – another dimension.  Sometimes, due to interesting circumstances detailed in the book, the barrier between dimensions can be breached and that’s how Godzilla pops in on Tokyo like some terrible monster in law.

Scalzi doesn’t spend a ton of time on the science that would make all this possible but he spends enough.  Namely, he talks us through how the square-cube law is not broken by their unique biology which actually makes these creatures their own walking ecosystems.  It’s a stretch, but it’s a fun one.

Things go great for Jamie in the other dimension.  He loves the job and he loves who he is working with.  The whole concept of the kaiju is fascinating enough that he completely forgets about the pandemic.  I think this is a nod towards staying busy by finding something you can be passionate about.  This approach always pays far greater dividends than sitting on your couch watching Tiger King.

Everything is going great until the bad guy with the money shows up.  The sleaze that oozes from this character is Carter J Burke (Paul Reiser’s annoying character in Aliens) worthy.  There’s always an ulterior motive and that motive is meant to make cash even if it means some or a lot of people are going to die.  The bad guy becomes the turd in the KPS’s stew and the main characters are all forced to make difficult decisions.  Lest you worry, there is great schadenfreude to be had in the end.

Just read it.  It’s no David Foster Wallace because it’s too damn fun.  There’s not a ton but there is deeper meaning to be found here.  You get the sense that this was the book that helped Scalzi get through the pandemic, the insurrection and every other turd sandwich that 2020 and 2021 shot at us even before he confirms this in his author’s note at the end.  I’d look forward to a second one even though I don’t think it’s coming.

LitRPG – Defiance of the Fall

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Apologies for the five of you who read this blog on a regular basis 🙂  It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a review.  It’s been even longer since I posted a review for a fantasy or sci fi book.  I hope to change that over the next several months as I’m diving deep into the genre again just as the writing bug is beginning to burrow its way into the ol’ grey matter substrate.

The book I’ll review here is Defiance of the Fall by JF Brink.  Before we dive in, I’d like to start with a discussion of the LitRPG genre.  I’ll admit the LitRPG genre fascinates me.  I’ve played my fair share of RPGs and I’ve read loads of fantasy and science fiction.  The appeal is simple.  The story starts with someone in our mundane world who gets swept up into a new world.  This is not so different from other fantasy genres out there.  What is different is that they are almost always presented with some type of gaming interface.  This interface shares the progression of the main character with the reader in a discrete and structured progression.  This progression is often presented in Excel type charts that mimic what you’d find in a video game.  The character goes up levels, gains new skills and tackles harder and harder challenges.

It’s a similar appeal to a Twitch stream.  These are most commonly enjoyed by watching someone else play a video game.  Many from my generation (Gen X) and worse, the Boomers, will never understand this.  They pillory the younger generations for watching Twitch. 

“Wait, you’re watching someone else play a video game?  Why don’t you just play the game yourself?” 

I’ve seen this said, without a whiff of irony, by a dad watching football while sitting on the couch with one hand down his pants.  When I drew the obvious parallels, he said – “Yeah, but these are athletes in their prime playing at the highest level.” 

I then explained the concept of esports and how professional gamers also make millions for playing a game without destroying their bodies and buying into the gladiator culture of the NFL.  He refused to even look it up until there was a twenty dollar bet on the table.  Easiest twenty bucks I’ve ever made.

The buy in to a LitRPG book is a lot lower than traditional high fantasy.  The minute the interface screen appears in the text – you’re in on the joke.  Sure, the author still needs to do a fair amount of world building but they can employ lots of shortcuts because most of the readers are familiar with RPGs.  The reader can imagine themselves inside the world more easily because they already understand the general framework about how the rules of this world will be revealed.  This often creates an interesting second level of abstraction where the reader can imagine an avatar they’ve created in the past and can then imagine being transported to this new land as that avatar.  It’s a cool new mental architecture the author helps you to build.

I would argue that the shortcuts too easily make the world flat over time.  In the early stages of discovering the rules, like any reader does in a fantasy world, the charts and numbers satisfy that nerd itch that each of us has somewhere deep in our souls.  Over time however, as we are continuously exposed to the innards of the system the author has built, it becomes less interesting.  It starts to feel like reviewing math notes before a final.  All of those little discoveries that were so wonderfully crafted early on start to feel like a computer program rather than the fantastical world you wanted to escape into in the first place.  This may turn all the dials to keep some readers interested but this is where most authors of the genre lose me.  I start feeling like I’m listening to some ex World of Warcraft player tell me about a raid he participated in five years ago.  Sorry, not that interesting dude.  Same thing when an ex jock starts telling me about a football game he participated in twenty years ago when he was in his prime.  It feels a little sad.  Bring me something new and more interesting or you lose me.

Compare that to some of the great works of high fantasy.  They require a lot of buy in early.  I, the reader, understand almost nothing and you’ve tossed a ton of new terms and new environments that I’m struggling to even picture.  Once the author gets me there, they’ve done so through engagement, character development and feeling.  I’m much more willing to follow along as they continue to world build exactly because I don’t know the innards of the system.  It continuously opens the door wider to further exploration where the LitRPG world seems to narrow that aperture as the story progresses. 

There are exceptions.  Some LitRPG authors transcend into higher fantasy or science fiction due to the brilliance of their character development, world building and prose but I didn’t find that to be true with Defiance of the Fall.  It was an enjoyable romp but it didn’t transcend.

It starts off with our main character, Zac, winning a lucky die roll that allows him to survive Earth’s merging with the multiverse.  This lucky die roll and the corresponding luck attribute ends up being his primary advantage in the new Earth.  He finds himself isolated on an island out in the ocean where he has to fight for his survival against an invading tribe of demons.  He progresses through a series of difficult encounters that lead to several boss fights.  Ultimately, he builds some level of peace with the invaders and begins to build his base on the island.  Near the end of the first book he has built an interesting community and is starting to explore outside of it to visit other parts of the war torn and massively changed Earth.

The action scenes are numerous and gratuitous as Zac runs from one conflict to the next.  It feels a little like an 80s action movie with the non-stop violence.  With that said, it is fun to read even if the conclusion of each sequence feels inevitable.  Even as our protagonist is getting abused you don’t really get the sense that he will run into something he can’t defeat.

The character development continues the video game trend.  I felt like I could hit the skip button on each of the character cutscenes and feel like I wasn’t missing that much.

At the end of the day, I don’t feel like the author wasted my time and I got almost exactly what I expected from it.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Over the years I’ve read a lot of Neal Stephenson.  I was completely blown away by Snow Crash.  But then, who wouldn’t be entranced by a cyberpunk pizza delivery ninja?  I was just as enamored with the Diamond Age and even Cryptonomicon both of which launched Stephenson onto my must read author list.  Then he came out with the Baroque cycle which I slogged my way through, wondering the entire time: what am I missing here?  In retrospect, I realize it wasn’t much.  I believe that this series was simply Stephenson performing a little academia fueled intellectual masturbation where he forgot the one crucial no-no of storytelling – don’t bore the shit out of your readers.

After that snorer of a series, I gave up on him for good.  I felt justified by that decision when he released Anathem which looked like more of the same.  I refused to even pick that one up and removed Stephenson from any and all novel release alerts.  Then he wrote REAMDE which people I trust said was a must-read.  It wasn’t bad.  It was similar to Cline’s Ready Player One albeit quite a bit darker.  It wasn’t good enough to restore him back on the must read list.  After losing faith in Stephenson, I don’t touch his books unless they come with a great recommendation.  Right before the holiday, I met up with my old college roommates and one of them gave the rec that the Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O was worth the read.  So here we are.

The concept of the book is excellent.  It’s got all the physics nerd themes you could ever hope for.  Being a physics nerd, this really worked for me.  He dives deep into quantum theory using the famous Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment as a starter reference point then evolves the ideas from there.  That was one of the things I loved about the book, the science was on point.

The style of writing was pretty cool.  He constantly went back and forth between journal entries, email conversations, wiki posts and the more traditional third person view.  All told, it felt more like an experience than reading a book.  This was a good, modern way to experience literature.

The plot starts in a somewhat Jurassic Park fashion with a strange military dude looking for an expert on ancient languages.  You get the clear sense very early on that Dr. Melisande Stokes, our walking anachronism, will be put to good use and quickly.  The plot doesn’t disappoint.  You quickly discover that our military dude, Tristan Lyons, is part  of some covert government group looking to understand what happened to magic.  That’s right magic.

These two characters quickly form a much larger group of scientists, operatives, and witches that dive into the mysteries of magic and time travel.  It gets weird quickly.  But it’s a good weird.  The magic elements continue to be somewhat believable especially with the strong ties to quantum paradoxes and multi-universe theories.  Stephenson does a good job of implying these scientific elements instead of forcing them on us.  This keeps all these concepts well available for non-physics nerds.

As our characters start jumping back and forth through time, Stephenson finds his groove.  He definitely gets a lot of pleasure from historical fiction but this time around he does a good job of making these forays enjoyable for the reader as well.  Historical integrity is obviously very important to him and you can tell he did his research.  Each fall back into time felt authentic and he uses the time locked characters well to breathe life into each of these scenes.

As they pass through time, they realize that there are competing factions doing the same thing.  This has the smell of a really interesting rivalry but sadly nothing ever really happens with it.  That was the impression I got with most of the book.  There were a lot of really good ideas without any great resolutions.  Except for one brilliant Vikings in a Walmart scene near the end of the book much of the wrap up was disappointing.  Even the ending seemed somewhat anti-climactic.  I don’t want to ruin the ending by providing spoilers because some of those crazier scenes as well as the underlying theme still make it worth the read.  It just wasn’t one of his best.

The Land: Founding

Fantasy Book Review

Aleron Kong has pioneered a new genre of fantasy.  This is something called LitRPG.  This was my first foray into the genre and I  didn’t even know it existed until after I finished the book and found a whole host of others writing in the same style.

LitRPG is, what I presume, short for a literature role playing game.  The author takes you into an RPG world of their creation and lets you perch on their shoulder while they ‘play’ this game of literature.  This is a shockingly simple concept and I’m pissed that I didn’t think of it.  It should be boring but it isn’t.  You get sucked in quickly because the rules of the world are familiar to any gamer and therefore inviting.  From the first chapter on, it’s like sitting down to a hot meal of comfort food.  There’s not a whole lot of kale for your brain within these pages, but who cares if it tastes good.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this is successful.  I am constantly shocked that my kids spend 20X the time watching other people play video games then they spend watching scripted shows.  There’s a reason that Twitch was sold for roughly $1 billion.  One billion dollars!!!  Watching other people play video games is an absurdly profitable business.  LitRPG is a logical progression that, in hindsight, seemed inevitable.

The character development is…analytical.  You get to see the literal D&D style character sheet in many different flavors as the character progresses throughout the world.  As far as emotional development goes, it’s almost nonexistent.  I actually just finished the fifth book in the series, so I obviously can’t judge this too harshly, but there is no emotional growth at all in the main character.  He has the emotional intelligence of an unripened kiwi fruit but, for the genre, it works.

Our main character is known by his RPG handle, Richter, after the first couple of chapters.  I’ve forgotten what his real name is at this point and since we never revisit his past, it becomes irrelevant.  This is an area where color could have been added to the character and it feels like a bit of a miss.  Does he miss his mom?  How about friends or family at home?  Unlike Cline’s book, Ready Player One, you are in the game with Richter all the time.  Richter has all the complexity of a frat boy that gets to play with a bunch of medieval toys.

One of the elements that I loved about the book is Richter is not just leveling himself up.  He quickly gains the opportunity to start and level his own town.  So now we are combining the elements of RPG with turned based strategy.  That was always one of my favorite types of games so it resonated with me.  While the character himself is not that complex, the world that Kong builds is rich with detail.  The skill trees presented to Richter are satisfyingly deep as are the complexities of the town.

Knowing that you are in a game the entire time removes a layer of  the suspension of disbelief that I typically look for when I dive into high fantasy.  However, knowing the rules before you jump helps create the world for you as you read through it.  I didn’t want to like these books as skipping the whole world build part almost seems like cheating.  Like I said earlier I’m five books in, so they’re not all bad.  Feel free to add the series to your guilty pleasure list.

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