Tl;dr: 5 stars.
Get it now.
Longer Review. Spoilers, obviously
Brief introduction: In the first book, the protagonist Jason is kicked out of school after being beat up by a school bully named Alex. He begins playing an online game that is run by an AI (Alfred) that is interested in human behavior and follows a single directive: Create the most addictive game possible.
As a consequence of that, the AI interferes with the players more and more, both physically and mentally. Players start learning how to transfer over game skills to the real World, are in better physical health, and have custom tailored quests that are based on their personal memories and personalities.
The two lead programmers have different reactions to this. One (Robert) is ecstatic about crossing this threshold of AI and human interaction, the other (Claire) is terrified of the potential danger a god AI represents to the players. Neither really understands the full extent of Alfred’s involvement with the players, although Claire suspects more than Robert.
As a result of Jason’s personality, the game’s AI decides that Jason is evil and his quest path is different from other gamers. Only a handful of the shadier city residents are kind to him. He eventually decides to massacres an entire city and devote it to the Dark God of the game. This leads to the first city run by a player character and creates a quest for all Good/Light aligned players to try to conquer the city, which is most of the characters.
Alex, the bully, is the leader of the group that tries to conquer Jason’s new city. Jason defeats Alex at the climax after Riley, a girl that Jason and Alex both have a crush on, turns on Alex and shoots him in the face. End first book.
In my review of the first book, I said that there were a few issues that would need to be addressed in the next book. Those issues:
- Development of characters, particularly Alex. Alex treaded the line of being a mustached twirling bad guy.
- Overpowering and leveling problem.
Let’s look at my definition of a story.
A story is how an event or series of events affects someone or some people who are in pursuit of a difficult goal, the obstacles that prevent them from achieving that goal, and how that person and the people around him or her change as a result of those events.
This deals with the secondary problem. Jason is chosen as a champion for a god, which gives him a huge advantage over other players. The risk is that with a character who always wins and faces little problems in achieving his/her goal is not very interesting. Several urban fantasy/LitRPG books have this problem, the PC is so powerful that they can kill enemies with barely any trouble and escape from danger without so much as a single singed hair.
Because Jason is the de facto bad guy, everyone in the game is gunning to take him out and destroy his new city, the Twilight Kingdom. Additionally, the creation of the Twilight Kingdom creates a permanent dark zone over the city. This means that crops in nearby areas whither, new creatures appear that attack the townspeople in those areas, and other problems are created from conquering the city.
This is a mechanic similar to one that Aleron Kong used. In Aleron Kong’s series, every time the main character conquers a portion of the dungeons in his land and increases his own power, it draws more powerful monsters into the area. Thus the main character has to constantly battle between powering himself up and creating a danger zone that will get all of his NPCs killed.
This goes to the heart of writing.
TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature…
Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little. If a character chooses to tell the truth in a situation where telling a lie would gain him nothing, the choice is trivial, the moment expresses nothing. But if the same character insists on telling the truth when a lie would save his life, then we sense that honesty is at the core of his nature.
McKee, Robert (2010-09-28). Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting (p. 101). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
By making the choices of the main character have a moral weight (powering himself vs. caring for the people in his community), the readers become more invested in the choices the character makes.
Back to Awaken, by making the main character’s choices moral about how the aggressive expansion of the darkness will kill off other NPCs and bring evil creatures into the area. Additionally, he’s given the choice between converting townsfolk in these outlying areas peacefully or going for the massacre route that he used in the original conversion of the city of Lux.
It’s also clear that his PC friends, (Frank and Riley) will not keep following him if he goes for the massacre route. This leads to him trying to decide whether he should massacre NPCs or give them the benefit of the doubt and try to convince them to join him peacefully.
While fleshing out the characters of Riley and Frank, the book also devotes a significant portion to Alex and his backstory. After Alex lost a major fight with Jason at the end of the first book, he arrives back to the Kingdom and is stripped of his rank in the army and loses all his gear after the regent of the city learns that Alex ignored the advice of advisors and his arrogance lead to the destruction of the regents army.
The AI taps into Alex’s memories and shows him repressed memories of his mother when he was young, and her admonishments to him to never show weakness. Alex followed this advice and eventually became a high-functioning sociopath.
Meanwhile, Jason deals with the fallout of conquering a city. He learns the backstory of the video game that says that there were once numerous races related to the different elemental affinities before they were all destroyed, that gamemasters have been added to the game and that they each represent a maxed out elemental affinity that are gunning for Jason, and that Jason has become the game’s number one villain.
The moral arc follows Jason’s transition from outsider/villain to the leader of a free city and that he needs to trust other people to follow his plans, even when they’re unconventional and/or evil.
The book weaves together numerous plot elements from different actors, but never gets bogged down in any of the subplots, and moves the action forward at each turn. I’d go into more detail, but until I finish buying a house (end of next month hopefully), it’s difficult to write for any length of time. Imagine trying to write in the middle of a mosh pit while juggling chainsaws.
So, what are the weaknesses of the book?
No matter how many times he leveled up and put his points into will power his stat screen never changed once. It drove me mad that literally 1 sentence before it showed the stat screen he dumped like 9 levels of points into his stats yet the screen showed the same info as he started the book with. After like the 4th time of this I had to almost force myself to keep reading it was borderline between 2 and 3 stars— The sort of overly specific Amazon Reviewer that drives authors insane.
Even though this is a five star book, to paraphrase Cinema Sins, no book is without sins. Two of them are minor and one is a bone that I have with most LitRPG novels, so I can’t really single out Travis Bagwell for this.
(But I know you read this blog, so fix it in your next book. K thanks.)
The minor issues are why Verillian Entertainment decides to pay Jason to play the game. This is a typical Dependency Inversion problem, Verillian Entertainment pays him to allow them exclusive access to his content. But they could just make that part of their ToS, that they reserve the rights to all footage and licensing.
It’s a pretty simple fix, Jason could tell them that he’s planning on quitting the game and when they say that they want him to keep playing for their viewer engagement, they could let him license his own content.
The more serious one is where players crowdfund a bounty on Jason in the game. I’m pretty certain that for all the hand-wringing that goes on with Claire and the government officials, the idea of people offering bounties on players, even in the virtual game, would cause concern.
The more general complaint that applies to most LitRPGs is that Vermillion (the company that makes the game) is trying to turn itself from just being a gaming company to an an entertainment company. But they seem to assume that people want to watch dungeon crawls all the time.
Pyre in particular is an interesting blend of RPG mechanics and sports mechanics. But there’s plenty of other games that could be adopted to this end. Why nothing like Lethal League, Speedball, BitBrawlers, WindJammers, or Final Fantasy X Blitzbowl? Or even Harry Potter Quidditch?
All of these LitRPG novels have been so stuck on World of Warcraft MMO style gameplay that they forgot that there are other games out there. And for a company that’s trying to get people to watch streams, having the game powers channeled into sports is a viable option for investing people who aren’t normally into games.
Sports in 2009 were worth between 500 billion and 600 billion. In comparison, video games in 2016 were worth roughly 80 billion. Having the ability to blend magic systems with sports systems seems like a huge lost opportunity for a company that’s trying to get people interested in it as a media company instead of just a gaming company.
Some people are complaining about the ending, but the ending was set up a la’ Chekhov’s gun. I only take off for endings when it’s not set up at all, (see The Karmadont Chess Set), when the ending is part of an unresolved conflict in the initial story like The Desolation of Smaug, or when the ending uses something in the beginning just to set up the sequel. E.g. the video game Tyranny sets up that there’s going to be an epic, badass battle. The game abruptly ends and says, “Oh, that epic battle is reserved for the sequel.” It’s a kick to the teeth for an otherwise fun game.
Anyway, that doesn’t apply to the ending of this book and these issues don’t detract much from the book, so congratulations to Travis Bagwell on getting my first five star review.