Tl;dr: 3 stars.
The book starts off with a frightening premise: A man is stuck a virtual World with no memory of who he is. The only way to progress is to level up, which will give him back memories. When he logs in, he finds out that his character only has stats in charisma, and realizes the game he is killing off some of the people in it.
Despite having a premise that inspires terror and immediately makes the reader sympathize with the plight of the character, the novel spends most of its time undercutting its own suspense and leaving other parts unexplored. Except when plot tells us that he cares about his shipmates, he does nothing to help any of them or demonstrate he cares about any of them in the slightest.
Instead, the novel spends most of its time building a Marty Stu character and harems rather than exploring its own unique premises. Each one of these Marty Stu/harem sequences make the character more and more unpalatable. By the end of the novel, he seems more like an idiotic teen virgin than a military officer aboard a vessel.
This gets reinforced by the Max Landis style of writing where the tone switches from irrelevant banter to deadly serious talk in a matter of seconds, from doofus to absolute badass in seconds. In some scenes, we learn that what’s going on is really important and Runner cares deeply about the lives of people. In other scenes, he acts like an idiot who doesn’t care about anything and gets chided by the women for it.
While the book keeps telling us repeatedly that Runner is the greatest and most wonderful person in the World, in every interaction he has with a male character, he is the worst person imaginable. He frequently goes out of his way to be rude, hostile, or malevolent towards men.
Whenever this happens, Arand will then try to point out how it was really the male character’s fault and that Runner was blameless. It doesn’t just play out once, this scene plays out in literally every encounter with a male. I mean this, it happens in each and every male encounter. When your novel has 9 male rapists and 5 male racists in it, you might need to rethink your character development model.
The problem with this is one of the moral conflicts that Arand tries to set up is that that Runner initially views all the people as NPCs, and a major portion of the book is about how he shouldn’t talk down to NPCs. Yet his behavior towards PCs is absolutely deplorable. So even though the book *says* repeatedly that he only thinks of them as NPCs, this is almost never shown. It *says* that PCs are more important, but it never shows it. There is no real moral conflict, it’s entirely artificial.
It’s the fact that Arand wants to have his cake and eat it too that makes Runner one of the most unlikeable protagonists of any book I’ve read. Whenever most authors make an unlikeable protagonist like David Lurie in Coetzee’s Disgrace, Babbit in Lewis Sinclair’s Babbit, Troy in Fences by August Williams, or Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, they acknowledge both the shortcomings of the main character and the strengths of that character. **
But here, Arand both wants to imbue Runner with all the Marty Stu characteristics of being a white-knight while also shielding him from the fact that he’s shirked his duties as an officer and that he engages in unnecessary aggression against all the males. So he continually justifies both these actions with various contrivances. All the other men are either d***s, rapists, or both. Choose.
Likewise, he can be a d*** to men, but not to women, because if he was a d*** to both he’d have a character flaw. I.e. Hugh Laurie in House is arrogant around everyone because it’s his character trait. His personal and professional life is dictated by his own intellect and condescension towards other people.
Runner’s personality doesn’t have character traits or flaws, it has whatever personality the plot needs him to have in order to fulfill Marty Stu requirements. Because of this, he goes into vanilla-wafer good guy territory. Likewise, all the villains are puppy-kicking villains.
Why is this an issue? Because problems that manifest themselves early in a book series will compound in each subsequent book the longer the series runs.
Twilight is an awful, awful book. Most fans will not acknowledge that. But many will acknowledge that the sequel is worse, and that the sequel to that is even more awful. That’s because the mistakes that occur in a first book can be tucked away in a closet. The longer the series runs, the more those problems start falling out of that closet as the author stuffs more and more problems away.
Remember that if you’re begging your favorite author to write an immediate follow-up to their book.
There are lots of areas where Runner will know rules he shouldn’t know. I.e. he says “By the Sovereign Seven” in the game at the start, but he doesn’t know anything about the pantheon later on. Likewise, other PCs also use that expression, which is weird because apparently paganism becomes a thing again in the future. There’s lot of little things like that, but unless you’re looking for them, they will probably go unnoticed.
I rate the series lower than most people because I cannot stand the protagonist and there are certain cliches that are too obvious to avoid not pointing out. Fortunately, someone wrote a book for me to do exactly that. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Dianna Wynne Jones is the book of cliches for fantasy novels, and this book repeatedly runs into every cliche in the novel. It even comments on it, which doesn’t help.
Plot: 4 stars. The plot starts off with a strong premise that it fails to capitalize on except when the author remembers that he put a plot in there.
Characters: 3.5 stars. Outside from the fact that Runner is awful, the other characters have enough personality to compensate for it. This gets squandered in only one character, Katarina, who serves no useful purpose except to tell Runner how wonderful he is.
Emotions: 3 stars. There are some good battles and mechanics that come into play, but the main emotion of the story only comes out when the author decides to quit telling us about how awesome runner is. The fact that all of the villains are one-dimensional kills most of the emotion, the wolf at the beginning is the highlight of NPC villains.
The moral focus on NPC vs. PC is never fleshed out because the Marty Stu nature of Runner negates any potential moral conflict. This book is mostly a series of squandered opportunities, and like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, it could have been a contender. Instead, it feels like a series of wasted opportunities.
** These are all award winning books or plays. That’s because creating a protagonist who is unfavorable and that can get people to stick with the novel is an incredibly hard feat to accomplish.
Long version, spoilers, obviously:
William Norwood (Runner) is stuck in a game, looking at an admin screen. He has a vague memory of who he is, but no specific details. He knows he is on a spaceship that has malfunctioned, and he has the option of either indefinitely staring at an admin screen or playing a virtual game by logging in. He has an audio recording that he presumes is from himself, which only gives him the cryptic advice of “Level up, get your memories back, and don’t die.”
The starting premise is where the book builds up its good will with the viewer. It’s a genuinely scary premise that makes you feel for the protagonist early on. His situation is further complicated when he’s attacked soon after spawning and is forced to run up a tree to hide from the enemy. A mysterious user logs into the system and allocates a massive amount of new resources into the system and uploads a patch.
While waiting in the tree, Runner tries out various spells and accidentally discovers that he can enchant weapons with spells. The most prophetic words of the book come out at this part:
It didn’t feel quite right that creating a unique skill should be this easy or quick.
Oh my god, right!? Runner battles with the wolf, and the next problem with the novel occurs. Even though it’s set up that he has no stats, he never fails an attack, skill check, or magic spell. There’s no locked progression that says, “You must have at least 10 intelligence before you can attempt this spell.” So while the book tells us that it’s big hindrance, it never shows us a single instance where this is true.
At the same time, we also get a well-done action sequence, one of the strengths of the series.
In the next sequence, Runner takes out three thugs and a bandit to rescue a peasant woman and we come across the familiar anti-pattern of How Many Powers Do I Have? Runner can endlessly generate a skill and use it effective immediately. The fact that he can take out four NPCs that are all ten or more levels higher than him also creates the OP problem. If I already know that the protagonist can breeze through any encounter, why should I care about what happens when he has one?
This scene plays out exactly as it should:
BANDITS roam the hillier parts of the country in large gangs that seem fairly well organized… you must prepare to rescue her/him from the clearing where the Bandits are preparing for the mass rape. You need have no compunction about killing as many Bandits as you can. Male or female, they are the dregs. Nor will they seem very organized when you burst into the clearing. You may steal their HORSES and proceed with the Tour.
Two questions about Bandits remain unanswered. These are:
1. Where are Bandits recruited from? The Management is vague on this point, but sometimes indicates that Bandits are outcasts, on the run for crimes committed in their hometowns or villages, or that they are unattached MERCENARIES.
2. What do the Bandits do with the large amount of loot they regularly cull from Caravans? The Management is vaguer still on this point and has never so far indicated the whereabouts of any receivers of stolen goods willing to deal with Bandits, but since the Bandits cannot eat JEWELLERY or baled cloth, such outlets must exist.
Both these questions may have the same answer. The Bandits are employed by the Management to make the early stages of the Tour more interesting.
— Tough Guide to FantasyLand
I know Delver’s LLC has a similar trope, but there it uses goblins, it’s explained they exist as a unit, that they prey off of villagers near where they are, that they were followed instead of being randomly found in the middle of nowhere hours away from even a tiny outpost of a village, etc. In this scenario, they’re in the middle of nowhere, meaning the peasant was kidnapped and these three random people are all on the middle of the woods that he happens to stumble across. As with many things, execution is king.
The bandit he doesn’t kill, but merely incapacitates. When he goes into the peasant girls town to see how they deal with thieves, he realizes that virtual racism is alive and well and the town has capital punishment as the number one method for dealing with any problems. He finds this out, of course, by conversing with a male character.
Runner decides not to turn over the thief (Hannah) to the town and goes to an inn to decide how to progress. He jumps 20 levels in experience.
This triggers a wave of memories returning to him and leaves him at Hannah’s mercy. She doesn’t kill him and he decides that the best way to deal with her is to hire her as a permanent companion. He then asks a villager to point him to a location he can grind out experience at.
Hannah’s personality can best be described by The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
FEMALE MERCENARY. This will be a COMPANION on your Tour. She is usually tall, thin and wiry, silent, and neurotic. SEX scares her. This is because she either came from a NUNNERY or was raped as a child. Or both. Somehow this inspired her to become a MERCENARY and she is very good at her job. You can rely on her absolutely in a FIGHT. She can usually kill two people at once while guarding your back in between. The rest of the time, she will irritate you… Mostly, she will have no Magic TALENTS, but sometimes, in an emergency, she will come up with a GIFT or a VISION. You will end up grudgingly admiring her.
This takes him to an orc village, and we learn on the way over that the spaceship he is on board is almost completely destroyed except for life-support and other critical functions. We get a minor editorial mistake as the book tells us that when he had Hannah as a prisoner, he spent his time:
He found he could cycle between a number of his skills and return to the start as they all refreshed. Forage, Sense Heading, Stealth, Analyze, Distract, and Enchant on his boots.
But for some reason, she forgets that she’s seen him do this for three days straight.
Completing the work, Runner activated stealth…
“F***ing unnatural b***ard,” Hannah said aloud. She probably hadn’t meant for him to hear it, having expected him to immediately step away after going into Stealth.
This is the quintessence of the Mary Sue/Marty Stu character. The character is a representation of the author and characters spent an inordinate amount of time commenting on his/her every action.
After that, Runner attempts to make Hannah a member of his group, even though the game is supposed to restrict NPCs from becoming group members. Because of plot, this works.
NPCs had an inventory of sorts, but only what was visually on them, or what one would expect them to have.
Runner has never played the game before, but he constantly remarks on what the rules of the game are. Then breaks them anyway. Plot coupons are when the author attempts to get a payoff with no setup. Here, it’s a setup with no payoff. There’s a rule called Chekhov’s Gun that states you shouldn’t introduce something unless you plan to use it.
There’s also a tonal shift problem throughout the book. Runner talks to himself, mutters nonsense, and talks to himself repeating phrases like, “Blood for the blood gods and skulls for the skull throne” when he’s dealing with NPCs. But he also wants to be taken very seriously at other points. This is the Max Landis school of writing where we switch from awkward comedy attempts to Take me serious now moments.
So our dialogue goes from this:
“Be still my quivering heart. Such a sweet talker. I’m Runner, that’s Hannah, excited to meet you. No danger here then. Except to my sanity, though that’s debatable… Hey, you promised one black eye only. Pay me later, things to do. Blood for the blood god, skulls for the skull throne…
Clearly I’m not a tour guide, so I would think it best you make yourselves scarce. Shoo, be gone, off with you. Things to do, remember? Skulls and blood? No?
Listen here, Kitten. I don’t care. Seriously, I don’t. Just stay out of my way and everything will be fine. Not in the mood right now to beat you into the floor just so you can give me some idiotic quest to go back to your home town. I don’t care if it’s to help you or your people, whatever. I’ve got green skins to kill and not a lot of time before something goes wrong. Something always goes wrong. So, consider me tempted, I mean you’re certainly pretty enough, when your face isn’t screwed up in a scowl, but right now is a terrible time for this.
Back to this:
Ah, our party guests have arrived. We aren’t ready to receive them yet. No refreshments, the band isn’t here, and the waiters haven’t even prepared the glasses. We must freshen up a bit first
Likewise, every male character in this book is a stereotype, and that’s because this book *really* wants to set up the harem scenes. He finds a group of prisoners held at the orc village and frees them, after getting into a confrontation with two men, who spout off racist things that only the male characters in the game do. He throat punches one and sends them off.
He has two of the women agree to be his companions, a mage named Thana and a barbarian named Katarina. They battle the orcs and work as a team, followed by lots of fluffer dialogue where everyone tells Runner how amazing he is.
Katarina’s personality can be accurately described as thus:
WARRIOR WOMEN. The country where these ladies live is almost the only one you will not visit on your Tour. They do not like intruders or men. Rumour has it that there are no men in this country, even for breeding with. Where the next generation comes from or who looks after it is anyone’s guess. But the Warrior Women themselves are out and about a lot. They are far more soldierly than male soldiers, and do a lot of swaggering, swearing, screwing, drinking, and betting, as well as fighting. Some are huge and coarse with very hairy armpits, but most are quite slender and comely. They are all naturally very strong. If you want your arm broken, try insulting a Warrior Woman. Nevertheless, it is possible to become quite friendly with them, provided no one treats them like women. Rumour has it that they are all gay. This may be true, but SEX with a Warrior Woman is often provided on a Tour and should not be missed by either men or women.
35% of the way through the book, he realizes that he has to worry about the plot.
Seeking rest each night, his mind wanted only to circle around the idea that everyone was trapped. Every single person was stuck in this game, with no way out, unless he could manage to log into the system and begin to make changes necessary to protect everyone.
This is what I mean by the underdeveloped sense of terror. If he were talking to his friends in the chatroom or forums, or finding other PCs and learning about their problems, or otherwise talking with his shipmates and seeing them disappear later, we’d have some sense of tragedy or loss.
Instead, he doesn’t do anything to indicate that he really cares about other people on the ship, he doesn’t even know any of them. We’re just told he cares because as a vanilla wafer good guy he is supposed to care. There’s a longer analysis on this that I won’t go into, but here’s a good review.
Runner is similar to (main character) from the first Watch Dogs. He behaves in the most evil and vile fashion, but it’s always explained away as being good somehow.
We next get a scene where all the women are asking him to start fondling them, with more dialogue about how wonderful he is. After knowing him for two whole days, five in Hannah’s case. We just have to build that harem no matter what.
They continue fighting their way through the orcs until they arrive at the Orc Lord. After a tense battle, they discover a female merchant named Nadine in his chambers. We then get this line:
I am suddenly the lord and master of terrible cliches. All bow before my royal self.
The fact that you know you’re writing bad cliches doesn’t excuse you when you do it.
We next get the adventurers traveling to town, and, holy crap, when he isn’t trying to haremify his women, there’s actually some interesting dialogue here dealing with crowd control, aggro, and party roles.
When they arrive in town, Runner meets one of the soldiers who was on board the ship.
“Runner? How the hell did you get all the way out here? Whoa, how’d you get level twenty-one so fast? I’m just barely thirteen and I thought I was the highest level. Did you find a great place to grind?… Runner recognized him from a fuzzy memory deep in his head. Floating above the newcomer’s head was the name Ramsey Bell. Doesn’t ring a bell. Hah, yeah… that was terrible… Figuring he could use the memory problem to his advantage, he put on a frown and turned fully towards him. “Sorry, Ramsey, I’m afraid I can’t recall you. Were you in IT with me or…?”
“Uhm, geeze, yeah. Sorry, Lieutenant. Infantry, Private 1st class. You helped fix my HUD cross-link with my auto-armor. You uh… helped me get rid of something I’d downloaded that screwed up the OS,” Ramsey quickly explained, saluting. With that bit of information it was clear Runner would gain nothing from this man. He was one of hundreds of thousands. Of the lowest rank and trusted with nothing of value outside of his equipment. “Yeah, nope. No memory. Sorry. Anyways, nice to see you. Don’t die, it’s permanent,” Runner said hurriedly, giving a brief salute in return… Ramsey moved to block him and leaned in to whisper to Runner. “Hey, uh, where’d you get all those followers? I heard there were a few you could have some fun with. Or could I borrow yours?” Ramsey asked hopefully.
And we get to the part where I said that the tension derived from the premise is completely destroyed. The entire scene shows that Runner doesn’t give a f*** about anyone on the ship. He doesn’t try to help the guy or show any concern about him or any of the crewmates, he immediately blows him off as beneath him.
This is why scenes where he’s supposed to be worried about the crewmates fall flat. He doesn’t do a single thing to help them even once in the story or show any concern.
We also get the familiar “All the guys who aren’t Runner are *ssholes” trope coming in. Like, who would actually behave like this in the scenario? It’s a way to try to cover up the fact that Runner doesn’t care about his own shipmates.
Most especially since the PVP restriction only really protected him, not his followers. If a player got it into their head to kill an NPC, all they had to do was get them alone and finish the deed.
Why does he know this? He hasn’t been in a town before and hasn’t played the game before. Why doesn’t he wonder how having NPCs in a group might change this dynamic? Then he meets a male NPC merchant who he thinks is not paying enough attention to Nadine, so he gives this line.
Did you hear her? Were you listening? Or were you too busy being an asshole? Tell you what, when she gives you a price, you’re going to agree and thank her. When we’re done, you’re going to give her a bonus for being such a great person to deal with, one unlike you’ve ever met. Else I’m going to tear your tongue out and use it to paint you a f***Ing mural using your own blood and stomach bile as paint. Got it?
As we have learned in Runner’s World, all problems are caused by other people, particularly other men.
He shouldn’t have acted that way. More so than you realize. Next time he’ll think differently. Look, I’m making the world a better place. I’m a saint. Worship me for my benevolence and grace.
Right. We move from there to a scene where Runner explains that the virtual World they are in is a simulation and then to an inn. We get one of the other weird ticks in the book. Katarina is supposed to be a barbarian, so when she speaks sometimes, she uses the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” approach to talking. Other times, she spits out full sentences with no problem.
“Very crunchy. Tastes odd at first. Probably grow on you, get used to them,” Katarina critiqued.
“YAH!” shouted Katarina triumphantly, laying down a flush. “Unless you can beat that, you owe me two beetles!”
It’s a minor nuisance, but how are we supposed to feel about a character that he hasn’t thought about?
Runner gathers the women together and explains the system and gives them access to the ship’s wiki. They set out and he runs into the people he throat punched in the orc village and throat punches them again, after they give him dialogue about being required to sacrifice two of his companions.
He then steps off the wharf and somehow notices a wharf rat who is (drumroll) male and waiting for passengers to step off the passage. The wharf rat spots Hannah, and Runner goes off after him. He interrogates and then kills the wharf rat in an alley. This scene plays out exactly like the parody Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
ASSASSINS, GUILD OF. The second most frequent guild after the THIEVES’ GUILD. Indeed, it is possible that these are the only two, and that in Fantasyland crime is the sole organized activity. Be that as it may, the Assassins are numerous and widespread. They are said to be very good at their job, which is of course killing people for money, and to proceed on all occasions with strict regard to law and protocol. Each member will have trained for years in rather a large number of ways of murdering humans (it is not known whether they also accept commissions to rub out ELVES, GIANTS, etc.) and will be distinguishable by a uniform (often black) or a badge. From one-third of the way through your Tour onwards, you may expect someone to have paid an Assassin to slaughter you. The traditional venue of this murder is a townhouse (Assassins, for some reason, do not operate in open country) or WHARF, so be on your guard in these places. But do not lose sleep over it. As the Assassin approaches you will get a sense of wrongness (OMT) or feeling of being watched (OMT), and this should alert you in time. Once alert, you will find it surprisingly easy to kill this practised killer. He will die protesting that you broke some Rule or other.
— The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
He realizes that Hannah is a wanted fugitive from the thieves guild, and we have a payoff from the throat punching scene. He realizes that he can’t run into a Church with Hannah because he throat punched a Paladin and mouthed off to a Priest of that Church (he only throat punches the Paladin).
Fortunately, to keep going on our cliched adventure, we learn that town guards are not a big problem.
GUARDS are the TOWN Watch and quite useless. The y always arrive too late to quell a TAVERN BRAWL or riot. This is because there are too few of them and all of them are stupid.
Tourists will be glad of both these facts at the point when they are trying to leave the Town unseen.
— The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
They stealth through the areas and Runner spots the priest/paladin combo with two other people. They have to make a long jump down that will either kill them or break their legs, so Runner explains wall running to Hannah. She makes a sign and says a prayer, then jumps off. Then Runner makes a parody of the hand sign, and by virtue of plot coupon, he gets a celestial curse.
This curse causes him to fall down a is used so the other companions can put him in the back of a caravan, and he finds out that he can craft items and permanently enchant spells into them. You’re thinking plot coupon, but no, it’s already been established that he can use any power for any reason and/or invent new ones whenever needed.
As the caravan goes down for the night, Runner talks to Nadine, who challenges him on why he killed the wharf rat. She tells him that he shouldn’t kill NPCs so carelessly and it’s one of the genuine moments of the story. We then go back to our familiar theme:
Katarina had placed herself at the foot of the driver’s box after one man decided Thana could be purchased and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Because of course. He then runs into another PC, also male, and spouts military law off at him. He is, once again, rude to the military personnel that he’s supposed to care about. He does say at least this time that he’ll let the PC, Special Ted Denshaw, join his party. But he doesn’t actually wait for him to accept the invitation and just walks off.
Don’t worry though, because it explains that many of the male PCs who enlisted are actually evil scum who were forced into conscription. To drive that point home, as they’re on their way to another area, he encounters five male PC characters.
“I call dibs on the first turn if she is. You broke the last one, you shit. Heh, poor little infantry rat, he wanted to take her with him everywhere.”…
They were barely in their twenties and looked exactly like the type of filth the government would send to die in the front line.
Sigh. But remember, despite the fact that Runner never helps any of his male compatriots he really really really cares about them and has nightmares about them dying. You know, the people he doesn’t remember and thinks of as scum. Those people. The one that the book makes a big deal out of saying, “You’re all NPCs” repeatedly, but doesn’t show him actually caring about a single PC.
This isn’t helped by the fact that the NPCs figure out how to use the forum and start talking to the other PCs, while Runner can’t be bothered to do that.
Then we get a scene where he runs into a female PC. Now the dialogue plays out differently.
Yulia Orlov… Staff Sergeant Yulia Orlov, of the 5th infantry, on her third tour of duty… Being manhandled by her easily in some of their bed play.
I’m glad fraternization isn’t against the law in the future. After a brief fight, they go a cemetery because the plot needs to remind us that Runner really cares about these dead people.. the ones he hasn’t attempted to contact, talks down to, holds in contempt, and hasn’t bothered to help. Sure, I’ll buy it. After the fight, even though he can now contact Yulia, he doesn’t bother to send her a PM and ask if she’s okay or anything.
Then… at what has to be the most predictable plot point ever… we get more of a male protagonist PC who’s a rapist. This one, (Jeff), has built a harem of dead women around him, and after a brief exchange, he disappears after poisoning Hannah.
Then Ted Crenshaw, the forgotten specialist, reappears and tries to kill Hannah. Runner kills him instead, and this is supposed to be the resolution of the conflict about whether NPCs are more real than PCs.
But since every PC minus his ex, (whom he forgets about quickly and doesn’t bother trying to help), is treated with contempt and scorn, the moral issue is worthless.
Runner is one of the most worthless protagonists I’ve read in any book, but the other characters like Hannah, Nadine, and Thana make up for it. Katarina is a wasted opportunity, her only role is to serve as a fluffer for Runner. The huge amount of stereotyping ruins their roles, I’ve already read/seen these characters a thousand times, a la’ Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.
The book changes between genuinely interesting scenes to completely cliched scenes. The central moral conflict of the book builds up no interest since even though we got lots of exposition about why we should care about NPCs vs PCs, we never see it once except maybe the scene where Runner kills the Wharf Rat.
This is the strongest book in the series and each of the problems I point out here get progressively worse the longer the series continues. It’s not a horrible book, getting a 3.5 means it’s slightly better than average, but the 2nd book is about a 2.5 and the third book I’d give a 1.5 to a 2.
The best thing that I can say is Jeff Hays does an amazing job narrating it, and I rated it very highly when I heard it on Audible.