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.