G5: LitRPG: Ascend Online-Luke Chmilenko

I was going to do a general review of this book, for everyone, but to be fair, if you’re not into role playing games on some level, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to appreciate or enjoy this niche genre-within-a-genre. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that the novel plays with the structures and tropes of RPGs which it is helpful to know before you dive in. So, if RPGs are not your schtick, turn back now, or brace yourself for acronym soup.

I love RPGs (though I don’t have time to play as much as I’d like) so when I discovered the RPGLit genre I was all over it there for a bit. Since the goal is to get a “real” person into a game situation, and there are only a few ways to do this somewhat realistically, there are two or three plot devices generally found in most of these books. A common one, which is used in Ascend Online, is that a person already familiar with the concept of RPGs, somehow gets involved with an early release of a new highly immersive technology to allow players to be “in” the game. Ascend Online uses a full haptic body pod to give players a full sensory experience, as opposed to, say, a neural interface or uploading of consciousness. Marcus and his guild are huge gamers who are among the first allowed into the early release and excitedly report to a gaming centre to be installed in their pods. We follow Marcus as he creates his character, Lyrian, and then is released into the game. Unfortunately he is placed in an area far from the rest of his guild and gets involved in an adventure much different from theirs. We follow him as he levels up his character, acquires skills, abilities and loot.

This is where the RPGLit genre really caters to fans of the gaming genre, because the character creation process, all the skills acquired, all the character traits and items gathered are described in exhaustive detail, exactly as they would be in the game: stats, levels, lengthy descriptions and all. In fact, every time Marcus accesses his character’s stat sheet, it is reproduced in every particular, covering multiple pages, as it would be shown on a console screen. On the one hand it serves to remind you that you’re in a game, and that the character is levelling up, but it brings any sort of narrative to a crashing halt. I suspect all but the most hardcore stats nerds would just skim it whenever it comes up – I did. Plot points are presented as quests (A spider bum rushes you, you kill it, you are then presented with a prompt <You seem to have stumbled into a spider’s nest. They could cause a lot of crop damage. Maybe you should take care of it. Do you accept? Y/N>)

Something that is explored extensively in Ascend Online is a theme that also appears in other LitRPG books, the treatment of non-player characters. In RPGs the non-player characters, or NPCs, are the characters that the game creates for players to interact with, to help them on quests and to make the world feel real. Many players understand that they are just game-created constructs, and use or kill them in whatever way the game requires. But since the gaming in the LitRPG universe is so immersive and real, some players feel that the NPCs should be treated as equally human players, or at least better than point fodder. This tends to define the “Good” characters from the “Bad” characters in Lit RPG.

Marcus, instead of being dropped into the same area as the rest of his guild, falls in with a settlement that is just getting started. He helps them with a goblin problem, makes friends with the NPCs and integrates himself with the life of the village. When his friends arrive several game-days later from the location in which they spawned, they also treat the NPCs like real people, and set themselves up as guardians of the village, ready to protect it from the players who will come and treat the villagers like so much code in order to gather loot and level their characters. This forms the loose plot upon which the character levelling, which is the main appeal of this genre, hangs. In preparing for this influx of “bad” players, Marcus and his guild level up their combat, crafting and magic skills, and solve quests, increasing their characters’ usefulness within the game.

About the only thing that I would nitpick is the plot device that takes it from primarily science fiction to fantasy – the introduction of a god character. I don’t know why the author chose to introduce randomness in this way, but it kind of took me out of it. Other than that, I really liked this book. There are some truly dire representations of this genre (including a whole subgenre classified as harem – I’ll let you figure that one out for yourselves) but this one is pretty decent. So much so that I have read all three books in the series so far.


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N1: Novella (17,500 to 39,999 words): Penric’s Demon-Lois McMaster Bujold

At 35K words, Penric’s Demon squeaks into the novella category, but if you haven’t read any of Lois McMaster Bujold’s longer fiction, this is an excellent introduction to her style. You may have heard the author’s name, as she is the writer of the so-called Vorkosiverse space opera-ish books based on Miles Vorkosigan, of which there’s upwards of 12 or so, and which are hugely popular. Penric’s Demon is a fantasy novella, set in the World of the Five Gods, where gods are real, magic is real (though used sparingly), and possession by demons is part of a job description. So far it includes three full length novels, and seven novellas. Lord Penric, and his resident demon Desdemona, is/are the main character(s) of the novellas and this is the first one of the seven, detailing how Penric came by Desdemona and how, by having possession thrust upon him unawares so to speak, he redefined the relationship between a person and their demon. 

The main positive about Bujold is that she is an excellent writer (clearly, having won both multiple Hugo and Nebula awards). Her characters are always well fleshed out, her dialogue is realistic, and motivations and plot development are well thought out. The universes she creates are just as compelling as the characters and she can clearly write both fairly hard SF (Vorkosiverse) and fantasy (World of the Five Gods). The world of Penric’s Demon is a late medieval/early renaissance analogue with lords and castles and magic and sapient animals and actual gods who occasionally work through humans. But the story really is about Penric, a young man who has his entire world flipped upside down after the accidental acquisition of his demon. But rather than allowing himself to be manipulated by those who feel they are more qualified to ‘fix’ the situation, Penric uses his considerable intelligence and personal charm to sort out the situation for himself.

I cannot recommend these books (this author, really) highly enough. Very quickly you become invested in the story of both Penric and Desdemona, and you’ll be quickly reaching for the next novella in the series.

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B2: Novel Featuring Vampires: Queen of the Damned-Anne Rice

You might think that picking an Anne Rice vampire novel is fairly low hanging fruit for this category, but on the original iteration of this bingo card on the r/fantasy subreddit, Hard Mode was defined as: At least one main protagonist is a vampire. Well, in The Queen of the Damned, they’re all vampires, so there! 

The Queen of the Damned is the third book in the 14 book Vampire Chronicle series by Anne Rice. It was published in 1988, 12 years after the original Interview with the Vampire and three years after it’s sequel The Vampire Lestat. I’ve read them all bar the last two (for reasons we’ll get to in a moment), and it really didn’t matter which one I picked, but I personally like Queen of the Damned better than the first two so I went with that one. However if you’re new to the series you might want to work your way through Interview and Vampire Lestat first, since they cover  backstory glossed over in The Queen of the Damned. And boy, is there a lot of backstory. 

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N4: Novel Featuring an AI Character: Fools War – Sarah Zettel

Fool’s War is one of those books that you never see mentioned on lists of ‘must reads’ or random listicles (9 SFF Books that Prominently Feature Small Dogs), even though it would tick a lot of boxes that seem important to people today: female author; positive portrayal of Islam; and it plays with the idea of sentient AIs. Though it’s over 20 years old now (published in 2007), it doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.

I come back to this book every so often because it hits a couple of my favourite space opera ideas. 

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Book Review Bingo

Bingo Player cartoonIn an attempt to blog more regularly, I’m starting a season of Book Review Bingo. Now, I know this sort of thing is usually done around the beginning of the year, kind of a New Year’s Resolution thing. But even though school is long behind me, September always feels more like the beginning of the year to me than January, and so it seems like an appropriate time to start a new project like this.

I’ve been devouring books pretty solidly recently and I have some that I’d like to talk about and that I think deserve some recognition. I’ve adapted the 2019 Bingo Card from the one used on the r/fantasy subreddit, though I did leave some just as they were. I will be including both new books that I’ve just read, but also a few that I’ve read before, which I will reread for bingo purposes.

My Bingo Card is here:

As befits Bingo, I won’t be doing them in order. And I realise some of the descriptions are a bit vague – they will be fleshed out at the time of the review. I’m planning one to two weeks between reviews. Stay tuned.

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