4.5 stars. A fantastic novel structurally similar to Aleron Kong’s “The Land”. The biggest flaw is a weak protagonist, particularly strange since James Hunter’s other novels create memorable leads. Despite this, it should be on anyone’s “Must Read” list.
Long Review, spoilers, obviously.
Viridian Online follows the “GTTFM” formula of writing, which is the “Get to the F***ing Monkey” formula, named after the movie “Kong” where it takes forever to get to the titular Kong. James gets us to the monkey very quickly and the plot doesn’t dally around, but moving the action forward so quickly creates problems when he tries to introduce characters that the protagonist knows, but the reading audience has never encountered.
Earth is about to be destroyed by a meteor and the only scenarios are to go into an underground bunker for the rich and famous, try to survive the apocalypse, or transfer consciousness to a video game that kills 1 in 4 people. The game maps out the player’s brain and turns them into a permanent virtual avatar.
The protagonist, Jack, lives in a shanty apartment and doesn’t have anything tying him to regular Earth. Faced with the decision between the apocalypse and living in a video game, he chooses the video game. This introduces us to the first problem of the novel that will come back. Jack has the capsule to get into the VR game, which becomes prize material, because Anna gives him one. But why would she give him one?
She’s only a mid-level developer, so this should have been well beyond her budget. But she gives it to him specifically, and we know she has her own capsule, which raises the question of how close their relationship is and how many of these capsules exist. I.e. how many players are in the game permanently? You get one free plot coupon from me, but the issue of Anna and Jack’s relationship never gets resolved and it’s a relationship that I honestly thought the book could have done without.
After setting up the capsule, he wakes up to find himself trapped in a dungeon alongside a NPC companion named Cutter. It seems the author knew his main character was a bit boring and decided to spice up the narrative by giving us an entertaining side kick. Cutter frees them from their cell, and the two progress through the dungeon/jail, Cutter filling Jack in on his philosophy as a professional thief. Jack finds an elderly woman who has been nearly tortured to death and Cutter advises him to mercy kill her and loot the corpse. Instead, Jack decides to give her a weak potion of healing. She still dies, but she does give Jack a unique quest and class.
This is one of the strong points of the book. Too many LitRPG novels/stories rely upon plot coupons to carry the story. I.e. the protagonist walks into a cave to mine it, and it just so happens in this cave there’s a painting, and it just so happens that the main character has a ring, and it just so happens that when the character puts his mystical ring up to the mystical drawing, he receives a unique quest. This means that most of the story is driven not by the protagonist outsmarting his/her enemies, using skills or intelligence, or even being the best, but by random coincidences that grant insane powers or skills.
Viridian Online only grants the protagonist powers after the protagonist does something to earn those powers. They might be unique or OP, but they are at least earned. This also means that the powers the protagonist has are explained in advance, instead of appearing at random intervals whenever the plot needs to be pushed along.
There are a few instances where this isn’t true, and they occur right next to each other. Jack receives a unique quest for finding a tree and he learns a Dark Templar skill by getting beat up. However, it’s the exception and not the rule.
The other thing Viridian Online does is set out the quests early and keep the protagonist moving towards the quest. This avoids the meandering of many novels where the protagonist seems to wander around aimlessly until a plot appears.
The book does break down a bit when it introduces Anna as a character. One of the cardinal rules of storytelling is “Show, don’t tell.” Which means you should avoid saying “Frodo and Sam were best friends” and instead show them being best friends. This is what happens in the Star Wars prequels, Anakin and Obi-wan constantly say, “Oh, you remember that best friend thing we did that no one has seen us do? Or that adventure we had, that sounds way cooler than what we are actually doing in this movie?” The result is movie relationships that feel forced or insincere.
I tell most writers to avoid having two worlds because if you do, you need to detail both worlds, what the character is like in World A vs. World B, etc. It’s not impossible, Robert Bevan and Travis Bagwell do it, but they also spend several chapters explaining the motivations of the characters and what their life is like prior to the game. If you’re not planning on writing a long enough story or fleshing this out, this is going to be a problem.
And it’s a problem in this novel when Anna gets introduced. Anna is the love interest, or more accurately, she’s where most authors would insert a love interest. Anna is supposed to be Jack’s ex-girlfriend, or occasional romantic friend, or a something. But there’s only a hazy reason given why they aren’t lovers in this World and why they were lovers in the other World. According to Jack’s internal monologue and comments by side characters, his motivation is to get back with her. Except that motivation never gets explored or taken anywhere.
It doesn’t appear that the author knows exactly what he wants to do with Jack and he doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do with Anna in their relationship. So, the bets get hedged, and they’re stuck in a weird halfway relationship with no emotional dynamism. Read the book and ask how their relationship is strong or more solid at the end of the novel. The answer is that it isn’t.
Outside from telling me in the story that they were lovers, nothing in their interactions says that they were. And outside from inner monologues saying he screwed up their relationship, there’s nothing that shows he didn’t commit to the relationship or otherwise messed anything up. We’re just told these things; we never see them.
Jack’s character motivation is stuck in the same halfway state as his romantic relationship. He’s supposed to be a low-achiever, which is revealed in his initial monologue. Except the entire book, he’s always running around and doing things. What we’re told doesn’t match with what we’re shown.
Theoretically, this could be because he’s trying to impress Anna, except he’s already dated her and this never comes out as a motivation in the novel. If she was a friend he had a huge crush on and now wanted to impress her that he’s changed ways in this new World, that could work as a motivation. But since their relationship is stuck, his character development gets stuck as well.
That isn’t to say that Anna doesn’t have her own motivation, but Jack’s relation to her is tenuous. Anna’s motivation is that she realizes the government and the game corporation she worked for have known about the impending destruction of the Earth for a long time. To get resources in time for the apocalypse, the corporation made deals with rich people on the wrong side of the law to give them a cushy virtual World afterlives while the regular rich stayed in their Fallout bunkers. (The book doesn’t say Fallout bunkers, but that’s what I think of). In exchange for money and resources, they get unique items, quest locations, resources, and grind locations.
Anna is upset that the game is going to create a virtual serfdom ruled by the World’s drug lords and war lords, so she schemes to steal their easy loot and exp grind areas, and pulls Jack into it. In order to create a new area, the game requires a “Founder’s Seal” to activate an area and convert it into a place with defenses, fortifications, etc.
The final act of the book is Jack proving to a community of NPCs that he’s worthy of his newfound powers and capabilities by defeating a powerful enemy that’s killed off their best warriors. It’s a satisfying ending to the novel.
The story explains the motivations of the side characters very well. Cutter, The Shaman Chief, the Spider Queen, and Anna all have motivations for why they do things. The weakest link here is Jack, who doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself.
The plot stays tightly focused on our heroes and the action moves about swiftly. Because we understand the characters and their motivations, we sympathize with their struggles. All of the mechanics are explained, even the introduction of unique quests, characters, and starting locations.
Plot: 4.5 stars. The plot is tightly paced, but meanders around the relationship of Jack and Anna.
Characters: 4 stars. Each of the side characters are unique and play off of each other. The only weak links is the protagonist .
Emotions: 4.5 stars. The best bromance is between Cutter and Jack and the mentoring relationship between Jack and the Chieftain. Again, the storyline between Jack and Anna is too muted to get any emotional investment in it.
The pacing, action, story, world building, and settings are all excellent. This is easily one of the best American LitRPG books I have read. The only thing dragging it down is the unfortunately weak lead character and the love(?) angle. There’s still plenty of room for him to grow in the future novels and hopefully there will be plenty more in this series.