Tl;dr 4.5 stars.
Another standout like Delvers LLC and Viridian Online, it combines strong character development, World building, and motivations. I’m glad to have all three reviews up because they each have unique strengths and creative ways of solving storytelling problems brought about by the LitRPG format that trips up other authors.
I often complain that in many of these fantasy novels, people seem to do things because plot. In this novel, the reasons why people get into the game, why characters act and react the way they do, and the details of the World all combine.
For example, the reason why the protagonist picks a dark race, not often picked by other players, is because he feels like an outcast. His choice is a reflection of his personality, rather than a McGuffin like, “It has the best build and only he can figure this out.” Which in game worlds where they are supposed to be hundreds of thousands to millions of other players, strikes me as a lazy reason.
Additionally, while he keeps both an outside (real) world and a virtual World, his outside World is set in the future, but still recognizable. In several LitRPG novels, they set up a strange futuristic World that they then completely ignore in order to get into the game, re: The Cadet and Video Game Plotline Tester. When it doesn’t go anywhere, this is frustrating.
There are two downsides in the novel. While the main character is relatable, there are things that are too hamfisted in the development of the main character (Jason) and the main bad guy (Alex). The second is some of the game mechanics are unclear. I.e. if low-light vision is granted just from trying to move about in low-light, why doesn’t everyone have it? Same with sneak and some of the other skills/talents, if games allowed it, everyone would probably level up skills that confer damage boosting capabilities. These are trifling flaws in a massive book.
The author is supposed to be a lawyer. He’s either a very good one because of his attention to detail, or he’s an incredibly bad one, because how would any lawyer his age have time to write something this good?
Plot: 5 stars. The plot make sense and satisfies many questions that novels in this genre often leave out.
Characters: 4 stars. All of the characters do have motivations for why they do everything they do, but this gets brought down by some hamfisting in areas. There are certain scenes where Jason does things that should be considered evil, but the book gives an instant out for when that occurs.
Emotions: 4.5 stars. The novel hits the right emotional buttons and gives a pleasing character development path. The next novel will hopefully continue it as the novel seems to be moving from main character development into more of a settlement powered path, but that remains to be seen. The ending is epic and one of the most satisfying you’ll come across in any genre.
Long Review, spoilers, obviously:
The novel begins by giving us both an opening sequence of what the game is like, followed by an introduction to our protagonist Jason. He’s late to school because his parents are both lawyers and often go out of town. When they do, they forget about him and this can make him late to school and get into trouble. They shut off the electricity with him still inside the house, and this caused his alarm to not go off.
This is the hamfisted aspect of it. I can buy the parents forgetting about him, but also shutting off all the electricity *and* his alarm not working? Why doesn’t he use a phone for his alarm, like every other teenager? The new phone is called a “core”, which he has. The year is supposed to be 2076. They don’t have smart homes in the future that automate this?
This introduction gives him a Marty McFly-esque introduction, similar to how Back to the Future did it. Marty McFly is late for school because he’s helping out Doc Brown, who set his clocks 25 minutes behind. The setup is to make a character that’s perceived as unambitious by other characters, but really isn’t.
The other students don’t like Jason because he’s in a private school that he earned through a scholarship, while most of the other students are there because they come from old money. When he gets to school, he has a sequence of misfortunes that are part of the “laying it on thick” problem, but it does foreshadow his later character development when he says that the reason he has so many problems is because he doesn’t stand up for himself.
At the end of the sequence, he gets expelled from school. He learns that a game he ordered months ago, Awaken Online, the next-gen virtual reality game, comes out today. He gets the game and is sent to a cave. He meets an old man in a black robe who is the NPC trainer/tester. He assigns Jason the task of going into a dark cave. We get another ham-fisted moment:
With few options open to him, he began to inch forward toward the dripping sound, his hand on the wall.
Bagwell, Travis (2016-07-23). Awaken Online: Catharsis (p. 48). Travis Bagwell. Kindle Edition.
He goes through a cave and finds one of his tormentors there, and after she makes fun of him and attacks him, he beats her to death with a rock.
“You had many choices regarding how to proceed, and yet you did not hesitate to destroy that which you seemed to fear most.
Bagwell, Travis (2016-07-23). Awaken Online: Catharsis (p. 53). Travis Bagwell. Kindle Edition.
Of course, this is a lie. Jason waited around a long time before he attacked her, and he already mentioned that he didn’t have any other choice. This should have been remarked on in the narration, but it doesn’t.
The NPC transports Jason to a town, Lux, and the guards and NPCs react negatively to Jason because he’s now considered chaotic/evil and has infamy. The guards won’t give him any help, but inform him that guards cannot attack a player unless they actually witness a crime being committed.
He decides to follow around a group of other new adventurers and some nice foreshadowing occurs when Jason overhears NPC comments, setting up future quests. He arrives at the typical training ground and decides instead of randomly whacking training dummies, he’s going to ask the NPC trainer what sort of weapons he should specialize in. He finds out that NPCs call the PCs “tourists” and that most of them are used to other MMOs where you typically ignore the NPCs.
Jason’s chaotic alignment and inquisitiveness gets him an unique quest to learn how to knife fight from a master. Additionally, we learn that the AI (Alfred) that governs the game tailors quests based upon player personality, which we already saw in the cave sequence. This sets up a series of interviews where the developers and personnel that manage the game are shocked at how many changes the AI is making, some of which requires access to the player’s own memory and knowledge.
Jason has to run from a bandit group and make his way to the inn, where he gets free room and boarding so long as he agrees to help out the thief master of the inn. He logs out and learns that Alex has been playing the closed beta and has been allowed to keep his character, currently at level 133.
This is one of my minor gripes, “What Level Am I?” Once characters get too high level, there’s a tendency to simply skip over levels and jump up stats. It’s also harder to understand the relationships, i.e. a level 10 character should be much stronger than a level 2 character. How much stronger is level 133 vs. 101?
Because of the temptation to simply cheat the system by having multiple level-ups at once (this book does it), and the tendency to randomly grant skills when needed in game world systems that don’t have built-in limitations of classes or number of skills achievable, I tend to find this system can get unbalanced very quickly. The book does limit certain special talents to having class restrictions, but the main character is overpowered, even if it does explain that as divine intervention, same as Alex’s overpowered character.
Jason’s next quest is to find a caretaker and learns about some of the political intrigue occurring within the game. He finds her and she’s under attack by two grave robbers. Jason kills the first one with a critical/backstab combo and the caretaker destroys the other one. It does explain some of the game mechanics at this point, why some people can learn magic and others can’t, and Jason gets his first real quest: To commit an assassination.
Meanwhile, the developers of the game learn that Alfred’s ability to tap into people’s memories and body means that they are able to transfer learning from in-game to the real world. This answers a question many LitRPG novels don’t, ‘Why is anyone playing this game?’ Alfred’s ability to manipulate people inside the game also means that he helps people with depression and mental disorders as well.
Back in the game, Jason commits a series of homicides that leads to a power level jump, though the game does penalize large disparities in level differences. This seems odd, but it serves the purpose of preventing players from simply going into town and murdering all the NPCs, since the guards can’t attack a player unless they actually witness a crime.
After Jason’s assassinations, he decides to branch into becoming a full-fledged necromancer, able to summon undead minions to fight for him but losing some powers and stats in direct damage and area of effect spells. He reasons that he’ll never have the charisma necessary to motivate large swarms of player characters and that this trade-off will suit him in the long run.
In a book where powers can be gained from use, it’s nice to highlight what decisions are being made so that readers know what the trade-offs are.
In the real World, his expulsion from school causes his parents to freak out. They want him to go back to his original high school and he starts demonstrating his newfound assertiveness. He tells them he will not go back. They kick him out the house and he decides to move in with his Aunt, who the family has ignored but always treated him well. A driverless cab picks him up and this is part of the novel I like. It’s the future, but not an unrecognizable and/or dystopic future without any real cause.
Using his new necromantic powers, he summons two zombies from his previous kills, and after ambushing the bandits that tried to kill him earlier, he has a 9 group posse. A minor misstep occurs here:
He gave the zombies each a bag so that they could act as his pack mules.
Bagwell, Travis (2016-07-23). Awaken Online: Catharsis (p. 229). Travis Bagwell. Kindle Edition.
Except the book talks at length about how the bags are super expensive and he only has two:
He handed over most of his silver for two measly twelve slot bags. He really had no choice.
Bagwell, Travis (2016-07-23). Awaken Online: Catharsis (p. 213). Travis Bagwell. Kindle Edition.
We get a plot coupon redeemed where the first house they go into in a lord’s mansion they plan to rob happens to have a meeting of nobles who are planning on selling off the town to a rival city that Alexion is working for. We also get the first OP problem as Jason can control multiple zombies that are dozens of levels higher than him.
He leads a violent coup that results in the city of Lux becoming a dark city called the Twilight Throne, with himself as the new ruler. All of the slain NPCs are now permanent undeads, and players can choose to start off as an undead race in the zone. In order to make us not hate Jason, the plot states that the guards and city rulers were corrupt.
Alexion/Alex responds to the massacre of Lux by promising to retaliate with a mob of NPCs and Players. In response, Jason recruits the NPCs he’s met earlier to start organizing a resistance composed of warriors, thieves, and mages. Jason levels up and gains new spells, including the ability to make bone monsters instead of just summon zombies.
Meanwhile, Alexion is moving towards the Twilight Throne and posting videos and screenshots of the march. Jason uses this to prepare an ambush. Alexion doesn’t have enough sentries guarding camp, believing himself to be invulnerable. Jason launches several attacks to harass him and whittle down his troops in terms of both size and willpower, leading up to the final battle at the Twilight Throne. It’s one of the best parts of the book and one of the best epic battle conclusions in LitRPG.
Riley, Jason, and Alex are fleshed out very well, as are most of the ancillary characters. The book doesn’t spend a lot of time building them up as this book focuses more on single player power vs. team building, but no one felt underdeveloped. There are some overplayed elements in the character development, but nothing that really breaks it.
The last part of the book leading up to the final melee is frankly, awesome.