Review of Soulstone: Awakening by Jason Cipriano

Tl;dr. 2 stars.

Strong writing and editing balances out against an underdeveloped and meandering plot, weak characters, interchangeable NPCs, and what feels like an uninhabited World. Even though it says “LitRPG”, the characters can use any skill, there’s no real ability or point system, no stat calculations, and it’s more along the lines of fantasy than LitRPG.

I gave this book 2 stars because even though it’s written better from a technical standpoint than many books that I rate higher, in fact, this might be one of the best books I’ve read in the genre from a technical standpoint, it lacks anything new, unique, or interesting.

This is like one of those generic shooter video games that isn’t offensively bad, but is so lacking that you can’t remember anything about it after you put it down.

I don’t care about the characters, there is no mythos or anything interesting about the land or the World, and there isn’t a plot. It’s a series of events that culminates in sequel bait. Cipriano clearly knows how to write and the fact that he put this out blows my mind.

Long review, spoilers, obviously.

The plot begins with a tournament between multiple players. Our lead is introduced as a complete loser who enters the tournament at random “on a lark” and finds out he is at least the second-best player of this game, if not the best player. We never find out if he’s the best player because he gets drugged unconscious and forced to participate in a new game.

As it turns out, the tournament game they were playing in real life is a simulation of another computer game, which you must play because a computer virus is self-aware, therefore, play the game because…

Ok, there isn’t a plot and the book gives up here. And when a book gives up in the first ten pages, it doesn’t bode well for anything else.

The reason for this elaborate ruse of making a fake game and then kidnapping the real people playing it is because supposedly, the government or whomever, the book doesn’t specify, originally sent soldiers into the game, but the soldiers didn’t think like gamers, so they all died.

This brings back memories of Adam Sandler’s “Pixels” where untrained nerds are better than professional warriors, because plot needs this to happen. Never remind me that “Pixels” exists.

Plenty of soldiers are hardcore gamers, (hint: Military is excruciatingly boring most of the time, the recruiter posters lie to you), and it seems it would be easier to train soldiers to be good at games instead of using this elaborate ruse. Even assuming you can’t use soldiers because (plot device goes here), holding an elaborate tournament then drugging the participants during the tournament seems about the most convoluted way to get this thing going.

At the least, why not just, you know, monitor people online and see who does well based upon the ranking system that every game has? Why kidnap someone live, before they have the final bout? Why not after the final bout?

I could deal with this convolution if it were dropped and never picked up again. In fact, the book would be better if the scene started with him already in the game, since outside from mentioning he has an ex-girlfriend and a Mom, we learn nothing else about the character’s outside life.

Cipriano seems to be a competent writer, and he has to know that the beginning of his book is the biggest crock ever, so why’d he leave something that bad in?

Here you get a peek behind the Wizard’s Curtain. The reason he left this in is because he needed a source of plot coupons, and this “other-game-that-isn’t-the-game-they’re-in-now” is the eternal fountain of plot coupons.

Whenever the players in Game A need new skills, they just remember how they did it in Game B. Presto, they then gain that ability in Game A. As in other LitRPG novels that do this, it means that our characters aren’t growing because of actions they do in the game, they’re literally being rewarded for stuff we never saw them do.

Worse, after he did it the first time, I knew how every situation was going to be resolved. Is that a tricky situation our characters are in? Well they can cash in a plot coupon and gain a new power to get themselves out of a predicament because they played this other game, and powers in game A are similar and/or the exact same as powers in game B. The book waffles back and forth over how similar the powers are, sometimes throwing in powers from other games because who cares?

Thus our players aren’t witty, they aren’t outthinking the game or surviving on skill, but just because they can cash in those plot coupons whenever needed.

Likewise, we learn that there are various lower level immersion helmets, but to get true immersion, you have to cut the brain out and stick it in a jar. Umm… what is it you can do with full immersion you can’t do with lower levels of immersion? Why is something that would be considered homicide in any country done as a first resort?

If you find yourself the sort of person who asks questions like that, you will hate this book. Worse, we learn that full immersion kills you when you die in the game. Seems like letting people play at low immersion level first would make more sense, but plot needs for us to have full immersion, so shut up and accept this.

Characters introduced can also change behavior depending on what plot needs. For example, we get introduced to a barbarian named “Two Manchu” who is supposed to be a scrawny Asian guy. But, when plot needs him to be a badass boxer, he transforms into one. Why? Because plot.

From there, we get the typical “Does Anyone Remember What I’m Doing?” plotline where the hero meanders about and finds random quests that power levels him up.

Again, it’s important to understand why something is bad rather than know that something is bad. Drama is created by having a goal, and having events thwart the hero’s progress towards that goal. If your hero doesn’t have a goal, then you just have a series of events. And that’s why at the end of the book, it feels deeply unsatisfying. Nothing has been resolved.

If there’s a specific bad plot moment, it occurs when the main character attempts to use detect Traps. Even though we’ve been told that this game and the other not-quite-this-game are different when the plot needs them to be different, and we have been told that skills from other games can randomly appear when plot needs them, when the main character attempts to use Detect Life, the Game God AI jumps into the game and delivers a warning to the main character that he’s “cheated”.

So the character is cheating based upon a set of rules he’s never been given. Why wouldn’t the AI, you know, just not let it happen? Because plot. This is supposed to add drama, but adding drama by making up rules is not drama, it’s just random noise.

When the book ends, ask yourself, ‘What did the hero accomplish?’ Well… Nothing. He leveled up and… got some loot. In fact, the first parts of an actual plot don’t appear until the end when the characters are given a specific quest with a specific deadline. Then the book ends. It’s a nice hope that we may eventually get a plot, but I can’t find one in this book.

But if the meandering and/or idiotic elements of the plot aren’t enough, the worst part about this book are the characters. Whereas most books give you a generic good guy, this book tries to give you at least three characters with interchangeable smart ass attitudes. This is not a good decision, because characters need to be able to play off each other. That only works when their personalities are at odds with each other.

There’s a reason why the Buddy Cop formula of one “By the books” cop balances out against the Rogue Cop.

If you want to see what happens when you try to fit four comedic reliefs into one movie, go watch the new GhostBusters film. And like the new “GhostBusters”, they are trying way, way too hard.

E.g. the reason “MythBusters” worked was because Jamie played the straight man to Adam’s over the top persona. If both had played the over the top role, it would have just gotten annoying. That’s why sports only have one color commentator. Too many color commentators turns it into a clown show.

Over the top is exactly where the dialogue goes when three main characters including a quasi-barbarian, an incredibly overpowered protagonist, and a talking rabbit get into various scenes. All three attempt to provide comedic relief and it goes into new Ghostbuster’s territory. That’s territory best left unexplored.

Worse than everyone trying to be funny is that the author uses the main character as his mouthpiece because he wants to impress us. He’s read all the right books and played the right games.

The main character is supposed to be a 20 something college mechanical engineer, this only comes out in vague glimpses throughout the book, because characters are unimportant in books, but the author instead repeatedly interjects himself into the novel to show us his true nerd credentials by referencing books and television shows.

Every time this happens, it’s like getting slapped awake by the book saying, “CAN’T YOU SEE THAT I READ THESE BOOKS, WATCH THESE SHOWS, AND PLAY THESE GAMES, AND DOESN’T THAT MAKE ME COOL!?”

Orestes is made to say himself what the poet rather than the story demands. — Aristotle’s Poetics

No, it means you are injecting yourself into the novel. Please stop. I’m not sure if Cipriano is doing this because he normally doesn’t write LitRPG and feels the need to establish his credentials, but it’s bad. I never once believe I’m reading the thoughts of a 20-something-mechanical engineer. I always feel like I’m reading the author’s thoughts.

Worse, don’t reference better literature than your own in a book. It’s like asking the audience to remember the joy they could be having instead.

In addition to constantly breaking immersion to remind us that he’s read “Ready Player One” and “AlterWorld”, The main character is what’s known as a “Marty Stu”.

In this game, each stat uses D20 rolls for characteristics. The main character rolls all 20s. Because reasons. And our protagonist can use any ability in the game, because why not? So our protagonist can do anything. Huzzah, how interesting.

Likewise, NPCs are completely switchable for PCs, they use the same slang, terms, etc. as the players. There’s even a part where this is made into a thing, they joke that the NPCs are interchangeable. That’s not a feature, that’s a bug.

So nothing interesting going on with characters. Nothing interesting going on with NPCs.

Another irritating part occurs where the developer says that they have classes in games and class restrictions because each class is already perfect, the skills balancing each other so that the player ends up with the best build.  This is meant to explain why one character has a hard time adapting other skills, because he’s stuck on MMO conventions.

Many people think that this is a brilliant observation, but it’s not.  It’s actually completely wrong.

For old-school MMOs, they wanted to get people to play together.  But some people are inveterate loaners.  The way to get around that problem is to deliberately restrict what capabilities a class has so people have to group up to cover every other classes deficiencies.  A typical breakdown is:

  • Healers and Buffers. (Clerics, Shamans, Paladins to an extent, Bards, etc.)
  • Debuffers (Shamans, Necros)
  • DPS (Damage Per Second), short-range and long-range (Rogues, Rangers, Wizards, Mages, Necros, Specialized Warriors, etc.)
  • Trap handlers (Rogues, Rangers)
  • Aggro handlers (Spell casters who can reduce aggression or otherwise stop mobs).  Enchanters, Shamans, Mages, etc.
  • Tanks (Warriors and Paladins)

Each class is deliberately crippled so they have to join up with other classes.  If a healer could also do DPS and tank, they’d have no reason to ever group up with anyone.   Games that don’t encourage joining groups like the Elder Scrolls Online have monoclasses that are capable of doing anything.  Everyone’s build ends up looking about the same since as a solo player, you need the same sets of skills.

The World and setting? I just read it and I can’t tell you anything about it. This doesn’t feel like an immersive World the way “Alterworld” does because of this. It feels uninhabited. No gigantic castle like “Daniel Black” either. Just… a starting zone. And NPCs that are always in the same location… that’s fun.

At the end, we get left with characters I don’t care about and that have no real motivation, a plot that didn’t go anywhere and resolved nothing, and a virtual World that I can’t tell you any details about.

It’s already touting that book 2 is being written. I’m not surprised because even though this book is longer than most LitRPG books, everything feels rushed. No plot development, no character development, just a series of movements between scenes.  The book seems to have been written with the purpose of getting to a sequel, and just like movies and video games that only exist to sequel bait, it would have been time better spent making a good first novel.

2 thoughts on “Review of Soulstone: Awakening by Jason Cipriano”

  1. I couldn’t get that far into it. It was that Family Guy thing of a joke that’s not really a joke, just a “Hey, remember this thing?” They were jammed in there every other page and it wasn’t clever, interesting, or original.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You mean this style of joke:

      Or Any of the “That Movie” clones, where there isn’t a joke, there’s just a callback. A joke should have two parts, the setup and the payoff. There’s no setup, hence, no payoff.

      Most of the novel can be described like that, things just kind of happen, but it’s never setup why they should happen or how they can happen. A guy happens to be a boxer, because he’s needed to. Powers are granted whenever needed, because hey, that’s cool.

      Like

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