Tl;dr: Four stars. Hits all the marks, but suffers from pacing issues and some bloat in areas that undercut the novel. Audio narration is on point, highly recommend listening to it.
Long Review, Spoilers
So, this is a review that isn’t going to be so much about the book. It’s going to be the elephant in the room that comes about when reading this book.
The elephant is that there are three main characters in the book: A lesbian, a middle-aged man whose avatar in the game is a 9 year old girl, and a gender dysphoric female whose avatar in game is a male.
This is an authorial problem that plagues any creative medium, so I’ll give my opinion on it as a critic.
When discussing gender roles or societal issues, there’s five distinct stances that authors can take, and most mix and blend them.
The first way to deal with it is the George R.R. Martin way. Sexism and patriarchy is all-pervasive in Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin points it out, but rarely actually criticizes it. The world is heavily informed by sexism, but it’s role is there as a backdrop to the events.
The second way of dealing with this we can call The Hobbits (movie) way of handling this. There was only one named female character in the original Hobbit masterpiece, Bilbo’s mom. There were no active females in the book. As opposed to highlighting and commenting on the problems of ancient medieval Worlds, Tolkien just accepted and reproduced them.
So when the movie The Hobbit came about, studio execs fretted a bit. **I’m guessing here, I don’t have a real definitive interview with any studio head to find out what happened. **
They believed that women need a female character so they can sympathize with her. So they added a character and a character arc wholesale with a weird love triangle involving an elf and a dwarf that comes from nowhere and develops into nothing.
I most often see this in novels where the author doesn’t have any gay/trans/black/(insert minority) characters, so they add them in random locations. The randomly gay ex-friend from high school. The trans bartender. The Native American DJ. They’re random characters that pop up only for a split second only to check off a box that says “Token character was inserted.” As with the Hobbit movies, they only serve to distract and add bloat.
The third way, already alluded to, is the Tolkien way of dealing with it. Which is just to never acknowledge it. There’s no women in prominent roles: The End. The book is about a hobbit and some dwarves, deal with it.
The fourth way is the Guillermo del Toro way in The Shape of Water. Del Toro understood that many of the monster allegories in film trace their roots to the movie Birth of a Nation, which features a white actor in blackface who tries to rape a white woman, who jumps to her death. The KKK are depicted as the heroes who valiantly lynch the villain. This movie impressed US President Woodrow Wilson so much that he gives the KKK a glowing endorsement in his history of America.
Del Toro deliberately wrote a sympathetic monster creature who doesn’t transform into anything other than a monster, and depicts the society at large as the true villains, personified by Michael Shannon. The sympathetic characters are all marginal society members: a gay male, a monster, a black female coworker, and a mute woman.
The fifth way is the satirical approach exemplified by Mel Brooks classic Blazing Saddles.
Brooks is obviously mocking Birth of a Nation with this scene.
If you want to win literary awards, four is your pick. If you want to get hate articles written about your books, choose number three. (You can see this in several of the anti Ready Player One articles). If you choose two, you will probably not invite any hate articles, but you will annoy readers/viewers.
The way that Matt Dinniman goes about it is a sort of mish-mash of 2 and 4. The overall problem is that none of the gender dysphoric setup has any story payoff. This is what’s really hard about path number four, the entire story has to revolve around the societal ill you wish to address.
The arc of the main character wouldn’t change any if you removed the entire gender dysphoric piece from the novel. It has no payoff. It reminds me of Rey’s parents in the Star Wars: Force Awakens/Last Jedi. Her big arc is that her parents will be coming back. But then they’re not. Ok. Thanks.
Inserting a pointless character flaw that doesn’t revolve around a societal issue is mildly annoying, when you make it revolve around a societal issue, it feels like preaching. Unless someone is reading Ayn Rand, they probably aren’t there to be preached to. Like reading Ayn Rand, your enjoyment is going to be heavily swayed by how much you already agree with the author.
As it is, the gender dysphoria has no payoff because the character starts off in the game and is male. No amount of hand-wringing or emoting is going to change that. As I’ve often discussed in the Two-World Problem, trying to interject problems from the real World into the fictional World doesn’t work unless the entire plot has set up the real World.
What would a potential character arc look like using gender dysphoria? There aren’t any great examples that come to mind, (I’ll freely admit to not being a gender dysphoric literary expert, so feel free to chime in the comments if you know a story that does this well), but here’s an example.
The character has a child in the real World as a woman, but always feels like she’s really a man. Inside the game, she’s now a man. But her child is also in the game.
Now, she has to conform to the gender norms of being a man while her child is used to dealing with her as a woman. It’s not great, because we have an old problem rearing its head. The medium is also the message.
The medium in this case is that everyone is in a video game where you can be anything and anyone. Which means the message is filtered through that medium, and if everyone begins life virtually at their character creation screen, it doesn’t matter what they were before then unless the game is based on that mattering like Lion’s Quest or Secrets of the Old Ones.
As it stands, despite all the emoting and hand wringing, the gender dysphoria isn’t actually explored in the same way that minority status is in The Shape of Water or closeted homosexuality and homosexual discrimination is in Philadelphia. The gender dysphoric elements feel like dead weight to the novel.
So, all of these scenes where we’re supposed to feel emotional pathos don’t resonate and just add a lot of bloat into the book. The character who works is Poppy, because he’s a middle-aged man trapped in a little girl’s body. So his emotions, mannerisms, and attitude are a source of comedy based on the incongruency of a cute little girl acting like a middle aged blue-collar man. In short, there’s an actual payoff there.
Other bloat that occurs are endless achievements. If the achievements did something, that would be worthwhile, but the game constantly spitting them out is bloat.
Storywise, this reminded me heavily of William Arand’s Otherlife trilogy. It’s definitely different enough that there’s no worrying about it being a ripoff, but the premise for the game event is close to the same. Some disaster occurred on a spaceship and the crew is plugged into the game World to keep them sane.
Arand used this as a plot mcguffin to move things along, but Matt is using it as the main backdrop to the entire story and everything happening in it. Like Arand’s story, NPCs have varying levels of cognitive ability based on their role in the game, but unlike Arand’s story, you cannot randomly awaken various characters and game scenarios have to follow game logic rules.
In both stories, luck and being a bumbling idiot have an inordinate amount of rewards attached to them, which is a trope I generally don’t like. I’d give the point to Matt’s story here because even though luck/bumbling is a major plot driver, the reasons coincide with game logic, whereas Arand’s book is very obviously winging it as he goes.
Arand’s book though is the clear winner when it comes to character writing, which is what I consider one of his best authorial strengths.
In Matt’s book, the characters are the weakest point in the book. Outside from being gender dysphoric, the main character doesn’t have a personality, a common problem I have with many books in this genre that I refer to as Vanilla Wafer Good Guy. Because the character has no real desires or goals outside from not dying, they never develop a personality.
Personality is defined by what a character wants, and what they will or will not do to get it, and why will or will not do something. Without that, you just have a person doing things.
The gender dysphoric sections feel like a compensation for this lack of an actual personality. The alcoholic lesbian doesn’t add anything to the story.
Another issue plaguing the book is similar to the problem I had with Jeff Sproul’s Sigil Online. There are a lot of game mechanics and pieces put into the story, but they don’t add up to much. Leveling up, for example, seems to be relatively useless since most of the characters skills are from their mastery of fishing.
The big saving grace is the character of Poppy and his hippocorn, wisely made the focal point of the cover for the next book. There’s an overuse of profanity, and Andrea Parsneau probably cursed more reading this book than she did during the year previous. It’s not something I care about so much, but when you’re using cursing as your joke:
I GET THE JOKE
Move on with the rest of the story.
Let’s talk about the alcoholic lesbian and a big missed opportunity. Most RPGs have stats for drinking. The excellent Kingdom Come: Deliverance has it as well as other RPGs. So the alcoholic lesbian should have some huge stat-boosts from 11,000 years of drinking booze. She’d be the literal drunken master. But instead, she’s just a drunk.
Tone-wise, the book is a bit more dark than some of the other GameLit/LitRPG books, but it does maintain that tone consistently throughout. Outside from editing and cutting out some of the bloat, the biggest thing that holds the book back is the inordinate amount of luck that makes everything work out.
Overall, it’s a solid read. Despite an overreliance on luck, the book’s plot and pacing are good.
Q1, James Baldwin: Every other fantasy story has a ‘coming of age’ narrative building the character moving from some kind of boyhood (often equated with a noobish state) toward manhood and command. Shouldn’t the book be seen an alternative coming-of-age narrative?
I wish, because that would be very interesting. The progression in game still follows the typical noob to skilled in terms of plot beats and general tropes.
For the gender dysphoric sections, the character doesn’t come of age. He’s immediately born in game like that. There’s also no levels of progression.
The reason why the boyhood mythos persists is because adolescence is what gets termed a “liminal state”. You move from a state of childhood to adulthood. This state change brings with it two corresponding changes: Your rights and responsibilities.
You gain the right to vote and the responsibility to sign up for selective service if the country goes to war. If you go to jail, you don’t go to juvenile jail, you go to real jail. You get fined, your wages get garnished. You can’t get your record sealed or expunged.
In short, you have both rewards and consequences for this transition, which is true of any culture we know of. What changes are exactly what those rights and responsibilities are.
If that was what the story was like, some sort of liminal transition from womanhood to manhood, the different gender roles between each, and the acceptance of rights and responsibilities as well as a detailed examination of strictures placed on different roles, that’d be great.
But it isn’t. In the game World, women and men have no distinction. There’s no gendered roles, so there’s no payoff for anything dealing with it. Similarly, a coming of age story wouldn’t mean anything if there were literally no differences from society’s standpoint whether you were a child or an adult.
Narratively, the character doesn’t transition at all, just springs into being. Thematically, the transition doesn’t matter since there’s no gendered restrictions placed on anyone in the game World.
I suspect this is partially because if there were gendered restrictions, a fully transitioned male would be an unsympathetic character moving from a group that’s marginalized into one that isn’t, and without any sort of social stigma currently attached to trans people who complete or undergo transition, as well as the costs and years of work it takes to undergo hormone therapy, surgery, etc..
That would read like a get out of jail free card, which would probably alienate the people Matt is most likely trying to appease.