Tl;dr: 4.5 stars.
A book that combines strong character development with a unique magic and World system that’s part Daniel Black, George R.R. Martin, and Full-metal Alchemist. The underlying premise is the question, “What would happen if a malevolent deity really were in charge of creating a World?” The book then explores the ramifications of how two people would cope with changing from our modern industrial World into a quasi-feudalistic World infused with magic.
It’s a standout that puts it into the best of American LitRPG, and I’d go so far as to say it’s the best American LitRPG that I’ve read to date. Even for people who might not like LitRPG as a general rule, they’ll find the character balances and intricate details of the universe pulls them into the story.
There are two downsides to the novel, the first is that it uses a discursive storytelling technique popularized by Tristan Shandy that many LitRPGs use, and the pitfall with this technique is it can lead to meandering plot lines and a lot of reliance upon coincidences to move things along. **
The second problem with the book is that it tries to give a backstory to everyone, but some of them don’t go anywhere. Those two downsides mean that a portion of the book towards the end could be trimmed and it would be a tighter novel.
The use of plot coupons in this book is very subtle and most readers will glide by them. As with Gandolf on a Laptop, (thanks Aleron Kong), the mystery of how the novel is made is well hidden from the eyes of most viewers. If you love audio books, (and we all do), then Jeff Hays voice acting skills combined with the story should elevate it to the top of your list.
- Plot. 4 stars. The plot starts off brisk, but begins to lose steam towards the last chapters.
- Characters. 5 stars. The characters balance out against each other in a way that feels natural and makes us root for them to get together without feeling forced.
- Emotions. 4.5 stars. Because we care about the characters, their struggles have an impact on the reader and make us want to see them succeed. Some of this does get drained down a bit at the end, for reasons I will discuss.
Side Tangent, cover design
The book takes place in a dark, cruel World. It asks you to imagine what would happen if you were transported to a foreign land that was ruled by a God who isn’t exactly malevolent so much as an uncaring asshole? That is where the adventure takes place, and this is not Young Adult or light fantasy. This is a brutal World filled with brutal people.
This is probably the most commented on feature of the book in Amazon reviews, and I think that’s because the cover is both beautiful and misleading.
The figure of Dolos, the aforementioned asshole God, looms over the four central figures. His offscreen, haughty look drives home his indifference over the people he brought into the World.
The four main characters look exactly as their described in the book. Jason is taller than his friend Henry, he’s handsome, but his stance and posture indicate that he’s not entirely sure about himself and harbors self-doubt. Henry, the Asian with the goatee, pulls off a quiet, calm sense of self-assurance.
The two women, Mareen, the dark-skinned woman, and Uluula, the light-skinned “not an elf but looks exactly like one”, are also drawn exactly as the book portrays them.
But the color palette is in the ‘warm’ tones, a lot of gold and orange. Warm tones tend to get used with happy colors, romance, fond memories, etc. There’s also a soft diffusion cast over the middle portion, again invoking romance or warm memories. This seems to be partly because it spotlights the two females, who are fully in sunlight, against the two men, who are partially obscured by shadows, hinting that their personalities might be darker than the ladies.
This creates a look that feels like a light-hearted YA adventure novel.
The bottom image is what happens when you shift the color palette towards the ‘cool’ color spectrum, the blues, cyans, and magentas.
The blue shift makes the World feel colder and more hostile
It looks like a more sinister World. Given the incredible skill of the artist, I’m not sure if Blaise didn’t tell the artist that the World was going to be violent/dark or if this was a deliberate choice. I am curious.
Artists lovingly call this version, “No Idea What Subtlety Means”
But this detour is really to talk about working with artists. Every detail you give them helps them nail the cover for your novel. The more details, the better the artwork will turn out. Just don’t try to tell them how to do their job, that will annoy them.
Long version. Spoilers, obviously.
Two friends are sparring with swords in their backyard when they suddenly find themselves teleported into an alien World. The God(ish) of that World is Dolos, who transports them there for a set of vaguely defined experiments that requires creatures who are able to adapt quickly to a changing environment. He’s found Terras, Earthlings, useful for that purpose, but they are not the only species he’s teleporting to his experimental planet, Ludus.
He gives the two protagonists the impossible mission of uniting and/or conquering the entire planet. If they succeed, he will send them back to their home planet. The only thing he gives them to help are two orbs with a set of instructions on how to acquire magical power and an automatic translator for the official language of the planet.
This is the Tristan Shandy style of plot development, since the actual plot, to conquer an entire planet, is too big for a single novel. Instead, the novel breaks down into a series of sub-plots and intrigues.
I love that the book maintains its focus by immediately jumping to Ludus and then focusing all the story events around it. It keeps the plot centered on the actions of the characters within the story, and it helps keep the novel grounded on building Ludus up. If a novel can get away with it, I recommend it because it keeps everything so tightly connected.
The next piece is the two friends stumble upon a group of goblins that killed a young boy and are attacking an old man and a young woman. They kill the goblins and learn that the old man is another experiment of Dolos, George, a man originally from South Africa who knows some English and has taught it to his grand-daughter.
He’s also familiar with the orbs that the two friends have, and since his granddaughter is a magic user, they answer their questions about the most common schools of magic, and the two pick unique schools of magic to make themselves more unpredictable to their enemies. It’s a bit of convenience that Shandy-esque plots have to rely upon.
We then get introduced to the villain of the story, Jeth, although he only plays a peripheral role. We also get our first deduction from the novel. In my LitRPG sins, I list “Don’t Kick the Puppy” as a common pitfall for authors. In video games and writing, the easiest way to introduce a villain is to have them kick a puppy or hit a woman, basically hit/torture/berate anything that isn’t able to defend itself.
This makes the villain uninteresting. Blaise seems to know this and tries to give a backstory to the villain, but this just ends up unnecessarily lengthening the plot. The added pieces don’t really do anything to add more depth to the villain and don’t give us more details that we didn’t already know.
From Avatar. If you include the redneck brothers in a military setting, no backstory is going to save it. Also, James Cameron went to the same school of sinister blue tone design that I did. This is a real thing.
After the meeting, the villagers decide that living in their own village has gotten too dangerous, with the goblin kidnapping driving home how bad things have gotten. They decide to leave their home behind to go to the outskirts of a city and settle near a guarded area.
On their way there, they get ambushed by a pack of demon wolves. We watch Henry and Jason defeat the pack by working as a team and we get the first reveal of their new powers. Henry and Jason barely survive the ordeal, and this event is used as a grounding point for the future development of the character’s powers and fighting skills.
Mareen falls in love with Henry, but she can’t talk to him directly, so hangs around Jason instead until she can work up the nerve to talk to Henry. Henry interprets this to mean that Maureen has fallen in love with Jason and avoids talking to her for this reason.
Jeth, our villain, gets furious about this as he believes that Maureen should be with him instead. He tries to force his position on her, and when he attempts to grab her, Henry throws him off and sends him scampering.
Yeth is humiliated by this, and convinces his his father, Yelm, to help him steal the valuables from the camp and from Henry. This is another plot convenience since presumably there are scouts looking for nighttime ambushes and Henry has far better senses than most other people.
The caravan continues to Mirana, where Maureen pledges to become an indentured servant to Henry and Jason to make up for the betrayal that Yelm and Jeth committed. When she gets to the city, she goes to the adventurer’s guild and turns in a badge that once belonged to her father, who was a legendary adventurer. This is the infamous plot coupon, and it ignores questions like if he was a legendary adventurer of such renown, where’d all the money go, why are they living in the middle of nowhere, etc.
Meanwhile, Jason and Henry follow a street urchin and get kidnapped by a group of slavers who are looking for people who don’t look like they belong. The novel really shines at this part of the book because it showcases the interplay of Jason’s personality against Henry’s. Henry tries to do everything on his own, and his ex-wife left him after draining his money. His mother is dying of cancer, and he’s starting to give up on life.
Jason rallies his friend to get over his problems, and the book shows how both friends view the best in each other while underestimating themselves. It also shows that the two don’t know each other as well as they think, ignoring or deliberately overlooking some of the darker aspects of each other’s personalities.
In my review for Soulstone Awakening, I point out that one of the things that hampers the novel is that the characters don’t play off each other. They tend to get in each other’s way as each vies for the role of comedic relief. Every character in Delvers LLC serves a goal and has a unique set of personality traits and dispositions that makes them mesh well together.
Jason and Henry free themselves, and rescue Bezzi-ibbi and Uluula. Bezzi-ibbi is the heir of a group of powerful aristocrats called the Jaguars. Even though he’s only 13, he believes that he’s destined for greatness and to be remembered as a troubadour warrior. He can’t because he’s the heir of the tribe and his elders want to continue to prep him for the role of taking over the clan, not to become a warrior troubadour.
Dolos appears again, and this appearance makes Bezzi-ibbi wish for a Hero ring. A Hero ring is the equivalent for his species, the Mo’hali, as the orbs that Jason and Henry were given. It’s stronger than the orbs that the other species use, but it has the unfortunate downside of having a percentage chance of killing people who use it. To break free of his stifling upbringing, Bezzi-ibbi puts on the ring.
You have multiple coincidences that build up in this one scene:
- The boy rescued happens to be the heir of a powerful family. (Yes, this trope is all over fantasy).
- The God Dolos shows up even though he wasn’t supposed to for at least a year according to the letter he gave the two main characters.
- The ring doesn’t kill Bezzi-ibbi
- The family just so happens to need people with exactly their skillset to move the plot forward.
I do find it nice that Blaise acknowledges he does this by having James say, “With all the terrible luck I’ve been having, it’s nice to have all this good luck happening.” It reminds me of a scene in Looper when Bruce Willis says, “Don’t go getting too deep into the details of time travel, it’ll just hurt your head”, a nod to the fact that any time traveling scenario will have loopholes.
The book then detours for a power-leveling/grind section that always makes fans of LitRPGs go “SQUEE!” Yes, I am one of them. Unlike other novels, the powers in this book are not well-defined, you can “level up” by getting new orbs, but you can also enhance your skills by practicing them. It’s more satisfying to use this approach than to randomly grant powers during combat. No mention of any offenders at this.
From there, they meet a high priestess of Dolos, Keeja, who helps Dolos with his experiments. To make the unknown experiment move faster, Dolos grants the use of a priestess to help adventurers find orb-bonded and hero ring dungeons. Additionally, anyone who views one of these individuals will immediately know it upon a clear viewing.
They then move onto the mission which the Jaguar clan gave them, to find out why their caravans keep disappearing. These disappearances have considerably cut down on the wealth of the Jaguar clan and the team has been tasked with finding out why and stopping it.
The book hits a snag here as a bunch of time is spent exploring the psyche of Jeth. There isn’t anything new added here that we didn’t already know, and this section grinds down the pacing for little value. He’s a sick bastard, we get it.
There’s another series of coincidences that get redeemed at this point. The first part is setup well because we were told there were different generations of orbs that Dolos created.
We learn that Thod, the leader of a bandit camp, has a first-generation orb bonded to him. The first generation of orbs are strong at physical boosts, but have little affinity for the magical skills. The second generation is strong at magic, but weak at physical boosts. The third generation, which Jason and Henry possess, are decent at both without specializing.
This explains why Thod, who owns two additional orbs, doesn’t use one of them. But it doesn’t explain why he doesn’t use the physical based orb. He shows no reluctance at watching the slaughter of men, and it explains that he doesn’t like any of them for a leadership position, so why would a guy so full of himself not simply use the physical orb that he possesses?
This is because we need a plot coupon redemption. While Jason and Henry fight off the bandits and Thod, Yeth stalks Mareen. He captures her and attempts to rape/kill her, but she kills him before he can finish. This leaves her free to consume the physical orb, so she can assume a more active role in the adventuring group.
Blaise clearly wanted to avoid a situation like in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman where Lois Lane is in the movie repeatedly but serves no purpose. So he uses this situation to help her level up. But the downside is he has to break character motivation for Thod in order to do it.
Meanwhile, back at the fight with Thod, he nearly kills Jason and Henry, but Bezzi-ibbi intervenes. It’s revealed that all of the ring heroes have the ability to nullify the powers of any orb-bonded. The more powerful they are, the larger the radius of their effect. It seems a supremely dick move that Bezzi-ibbi is willing to watch Jason and Henry die rather than not reveal this skill, but by making Bezzi a small, sheltered child, it helps to reinforce the possibility of this scenario. It wouldn’t work if Bezzi was in his 30s.
After everyone recovers from the battle, we get another powergrind/vehicle building section that we all love, and they then ask the priestess to help them find a dungeon that holds an orb. Since the climax is the battle at the robber camp, the dungeoneering section doesn’t feel like it has much weight. This is what I mean by petering out at the end of the 2nd act, the dungeon section is interesting in its own right, but it’s like having a main meal and then being brought out the appetizers.
The book ends by setting up a revenge quest that I won’t spoil here.
The book’s protagonists are all unique and interesting in their own right, and the best part of the book is how it pairs the differences between how all of the characters view themselves and their own weaknesses versus how all of the other characters view them. Several characters idealize or wish they could be more like the other, leading to problems and misunderstandings of a very human nature.
Since we like all of the characters, we root for them to get past their differences and to resolve their personal disputes. As part of my digression on harems, I point out that a missing element from many harem novels is that they don’t make me care about the characters before they try setting them up for a harem.
This is more general than just harems, it applies to any sort of romance. This book does setup the key relationships before it moves onto the romancing, and it shows you what the characters would be like if they never met their partner, and how gaining a partner helps them develop as a person. It’s satisfying at all levels.
The only downside in the characterization is that Blaise relies heavily upon a technique that Kevin Hearne also relied too heavily on in his novel Trapped. He introduces a character, then he introduces character backstory, then he goes back to the present day to show how the backstory connects with the current situation.
While this works, the downside is that it cuts down the tension and drama unfolding in the present day situation when we have to step into the past to understand the motivations of a character.
Because of the strong characters, the interpersonal dynamics are all fulfilling. The action sequences, magic use, and magic weapon building are top-notch, and if that’s your jam, then this book will deliver all the god powered badassery you want to witness.
The meandering style of story telling pulls it down towards the end since there isn’t really a clear cut goal to focus on, but the intense action sequences and deep personal relationships make it move forward. If you’re a fan of the genre, this is a “must read” in the list.
** To answer a question Blaise asked me, yes, I do have an English degree and worked as a TA reading student fiction for screenwriting, which is admittedly very different from novel writing. Unlike Blaise, I have yet to figure out how to turn this into anything profitable.