More Short Reviews – Skeleton King and Luck Stat

Housing and work updates:  Work is great, but looking for a house sucks.  The average time from market to buy is around five days thanks to new development, so that means it will be two months or so before I’ll be able to go back to the long-form reviews.

If I was going to say what’s the lesson learned from these books, it’s say no to Otaku characters.  We’ll get into that later.

What I have up in my review queue are two books that are similar, with the same but different style I had up in my last short review.

First up is the upcoming book by J.A. Cipriano.  If you’ve read my last review of his book, you know that I had serious issues with it.  Several key points were unexplained, numerous plot devices were thrown in that messed up the game balance, the plot didn’t seem to move anywhere, callbacks that didn’t go anywhere were overused, and a whole host of other problems plagued the book.  He clearly read my review and other people’s critiques and took them to heart.  He also asked me to look at the book and give him my rough impressions, and I told him I’d review the book once it came out.

So the verdict?  The second book is vastly better.

It’s not going to be on my top LitRPG list, but it addresses most of the problems that I had in the first one.  Some of the solutions to rebalancing and power leveling are really good too.  There’s an actual goal to the story this time, plot coupons are kept to a minimum, and the book picks up towards the end when it starts shedding the biggest problem.

The biggest problem that still persists from the first book is that the characters are not likable. Near the beginning it says about the characters, “Admittedly, all of them are assholes”.  Admitting you have a problem is the first step towards recovery.  But you know, it’s just the first.

Since the characters aren’t really characters, they all vie for the position of comic relief. They have no chemistry or concern for each other, they have no real motivations or goals, so most of their dialogue sounds like this:

“It’s easy,” Sabre said, glancing at me from where she stood just this side of the bridge’s first rotten plank. “To get to the Citadel, we cross this gnarled bridge before making our way through the mud patches while avoiding the demon dinosaurs because I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy getting stepped on. Then we knock on the door and ask nicely to see Asmodai.”

She nodded like what she said sounded totally reasonable even though it sounded totally f*cking insane to me.

“So, with that being easy, how hard do you think it’d be to say, see Jennifer Lawrence naked?” George asked, rubbing his chin with one bunny paw. “You know, as a point of comparison.”

“Dude, that’s weak,” Two’ Manchu said, eyeing the rabbit disdainfully. “You’re losing your edge.”

“Not as weak as Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud password, that’s for sure,” George replied, and with that, he hopped onto the bridge. “Now, let’s get a move on, I have a desperate and unrelated need to find a place where I can dig up some pictures from the bowels of the internet.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. This was almost as ridiculous as Kid Rock running for Senate, but then again, times were weird. Maybe it’d happen. I mean, he was an American Bad Ass. What other qualifications could he possibly need?

“Are you guys coming, or do I have to do all this myself?” George asked, calling back to us as he hopped along the bridge like it being made mostly of moldy wood and hope wasn’t a huge concern. Then again, he only weighed like six pounds max…

“Yeah, we’re coming,” I replied, wishing I could come up with a great American Bad Ass quip, but I couldn’t really remember the song well enough. Sigh, so many lost opportunities.

“That’s what she said,” George responded, tapping one foot on the bridge. “I somehow doubt that very much,” Sabre said, moving onto the bridge and approaching the rabbit.

“You probably last all of twenty seconds.”

“Want to find out?” George asked, raising an eyebrow at her. “‘ Cause once you get a taste of this wild hare, you won’t ever be the same again.”

J. A. Cipriano. Soulstone: The Skeleton King: World of Ruul #2 (Kindle Locations 2967-2984).

Pages and pages and pages of that.  They don’t progress emotionally or as characters because they have no reason to interact.  They’re emotional dead-weight.

So, what’s the fix?  The solution in books like The Land and Awaken Online Catharsis is to give NPCs that balance out the role.  Cipriano hasn’t moved in that direction yet, but he balances out the end of the book by using town building and management to give the character something to actually care about instead of caring about nothing.

My other suggestion would be to pair off the different characters into groups or factions, since “Is Dark Heart going to betray the group?” is a constant theme that he wants to build up.  This will split out characters from competing against each other in a medieval version of an Adam Sandler movie.

The novel also could have been improved if the world building section occurred in the first part, allowing the main character to form bonds with the townspeople and deciding that he wasn’t going to let the Skeleton King destroy his investment.  The adventures of McGeneric Who Doesn’t Care About Anyone or Anything isn’t particularly interesting.

Overall?  This one is up to 3 stars, the last third of the book is where it picks up.  The first 2/3 are better than the first book, but revolve around the adventures of people we don’t care about.  Nor does the main character even care about the villagers that are going to be destroyed by the Skeleton King.  So the main character doesn’t care about the villagers; why should we?  The lack of real relationships between characters, the lack of chemistry, the boring “witty” dialogue, the generic protagonist, these things all hold the book back.

But the path forward is now clear and the next novel has a real shot of becoming a good book.

That brings me now to Blaise Corvin’s Luck Stat Strategy.  The book improves over his lengthier novel Delvers LLC in some ways.  The action stays focused on the present, the book never jumps to lengthy backstories or past events.  The book moves from scene to scene with little dallying.

Where it suffers is characters.  I don’t care about any of the characters in this novel.  That’s what Delvers gets correct, the characters have struggles, motivations, and desires.  Overall, it’s a book that I call Mechanics without Story.  The mechanics in this book are well-explained and more interesting than most other books that I’ve reviewed in that genre, but overall, if I don’t care about your characters, I don’t care about your mechanics.  See my review of Man of Steel for what happens when you have a bunch of people doing things with no real motivation.  Regardless of how pretty it is, or how many buildings you smash, or how many bad guys you beat up, it’s going to be average.

The main character is an Otaku, and Blaise uses the “Two World” strategy.

giphy
Me when I read a novel that uses the two-World strategy.

 

The problem with the Two-World strategy is that the character can’t be interesting in both the game and the real World.  Usually, it’s the real World that suffers, and it suffers terribly in this novel.

A quick example.  Our protagonist is supposed to be an expert fencer, and skills in the real World transfer over to skills in the game.  So if someone can’t shoot in the real World, they can’t shoot in the video game.

But when we meet our protagonist in the real World, he’s a schlub.  He doesn’t take care of himself, he eats Ramen noodles, and has no interest in anything or anyone.  Great.  Why don’t we see him fencing on the college fencing team?  It’s particularly weird because they have colleges and dorms, even though the classes are all virtual.  Why doesn’t he have friendships with other people on the fencing team?  You get the point, we are *told* he’s a fencer, we are never *shown* he’s a fencer in the real World.

This is also where we get the problem of an Inverted Dependency.  In Travis Bagwell’s Awaken Online, playing the game makes you better at things in the real World.  This is a proper dependency chain.  The game helps the real World.

In this book, the real World helps the game.  This is an inverted dependency chain.  What would be the effect of that?  The game should be an aristocrat’s game.  The only people who have the free time and money to spend on learning ancient sword skills, firearms, horseback riding, etc. are people with lots of free time and money.

Unfortunately, this consequence is never explored.  It would raise the stakes quite a bit, because now a regular schmo is winning in a game designed for wealthy people.

He’s being pursued by another player because during a raid, the PC picked up an item of awesome stats.

Luck Stat Strategy‘s mechanism is that stats are exceedingly hard to level up, and any item that gives permanent boosts are rare.  Dying in game is an automatic one week lockout.

That’s where the book has a problem.  Much like Man of Steel, the protagonist and antagonist have no reason to be in conflict.  So the protagonist got an item that boosts his skills, so he’s being hunted.  Well, what does the antagonist think is going to happen?  He’ll kill him and get the item?  Seems like this could be time better spent going after another item rather than pursuing the protagonist around.

Much like Man of Steel, because the protagonist and antagonist have no real reason to be in conflict, the plot is flat.  The main character has no personality.

ruff_head
I’m generic protagonist with no relationships, goals, or motivations.  Follow my adventures.

If you’re thinking Man of Steel again, you’d be correct.

Let’s go back to the protagonist and antagonist.  The protagonist starts off by killing the antagonist in the first scene.  After that, the protagonist get a unique class that gives him super powers, in addition to being higher leveled than other players.

 

The antagonist comes into the game, and almost immediately, gains his own unique special class and powers.  This is supposed to keep the two of them in sync with each other, but it actually highlights how pointless the antagonist is.  If he can gain skills that easily by doing something else, why not, you know, do that other thing instead of pursuing the protagonist?

The protagonist is also completely reactive.  For most of the book, he goes from beat to beat because someone told him to do something.  Are you thinking Man of Steel again, where Superman just kind of ends up in places for no real reason?   Well it’s a little bit better than that, at least in a game, there’s quests and other reasons.

Let’s go back to the Two-World problem again.  In one scene, the main character’s real life identity leaks out and he gets grabbed at his virtual school.  But in his virtual school, pencils don’t fall to the floor.  But they didn’t think about not allowing students to assault each other.  Which do you think a school is more interested in?

In another scene, the protagonist whines about money earned from streaming, after he’s signed a contract.  His best friend tells him that he’s actually earning a ton of money.  This scene… I don’t care how dumb someone is, (and for a PC with no personality, making him idiotic is a problem), they pay attention to money.  Particularly since the scene is setup entirely so that he can talk about money.  That’s like accepting a new job and not knowing how much they’re going to pay you.

In other scenes, the protagonist acts like he’s been pulled from a D. Rus novel.  I don’t know what Blaise was going for with this protagonist.  This was the highlight of his last book, the characters.

Here, the protagonist is sexist, idiotic, boring, and lacks any redeeming personality traits or characteristics.  His best friend is his best friend because he’s big.  What?  That’s the reason given, the protagonist befriends him because he wants a big guy to have his back.  Great, but why does the big guy like him?  Because he likes the same games.  Doesn’t really feel like much of a bond, does it?

Then we get a female character who comes in.  She’s an Otaku too.  So it’s a story about three people who want to play video games.  But they’re playing a video game.  So they’ve achieved what they want.  So what are we doing?

It’s stated that they want to become professional gamers, but that motivation doesn’t come out until after they already are professional gamers.  So they already achieve what they want by the time we find out they want it.

There’s other suspension of disbelief where gangsters shoot at the main character at school, and the police just shrug their shoulders and go, “Well, whatever man.”  There’s areas of cybercrime where the police are lacking, but RICO is kind of a thing for going after criminal cartels.

Mechanic-wise, the book is good.  But I have no idea why anyone would play the game in the book.  The game gives out unique classes, races, items, etc. to one person.  And because only one person can get it, and because stats are tied to real world skills, the game seems as if it would be incredibly imbalanced, particularly because the game is PvE, (Player Versus Everyone).  So you can be murdered at any time.  And you’re going to suck way worse than anyone else.  And you’re going to be locked out of the game for a week.

The reason for this is the titular Luck Stat Strategy.  By investing heavily in Luck, the main character is more likely to get unique quests and items than other players.

It’s more likely people would forget about the game, as typically happens when I don’t play a game for a while.  And the massive unbalancing would be aggravating, along with “die at any moment” problems.

If you can forgive that, then the mechanics of the game balance out pretty well.  Unfortunately, the mechanics of the game are more interesting than the characters and plot, and if I want to read mechanics, I can just read the manual for a tabletop RPG.

Suggestions on what to fix?  It’s the same problem Cipriano has in his novel, the main character is crap.  The resolution is that the main character is going to need to be given something to strive for and a personality.  Side characters are going to be needed to fix the deficiency in the main character.

What’s the overall rating?  It’s a 3.5 stars book, slightly better than average.  There’s nothing as offensively annoying as the “banter” in Cipriano’s novel, and it sticks to action and forward momentum.  The action is good, the mechanics are solid, but the plot and characters don’t work.  As is unfortunately typical for a “two World” book, the sections in the real world drag down the other parts of the book.

If you’re looking for a popcorn action novel, give it a read.  If you want something meatier, pick up Delvers LLC.

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