I have been a fan of the Heartstriker series for a while and I also happen to love LitRPG, so when I heard that Rachel Aaron was co-writing a new LitRPG book I was stoked! Then I heard that it was going to be a “stuck in a video game” storyline and I immediately became nervous. Of all the plotlines in LitRPG “stuck in a video game” is my least favorite by a wide margin. I considered myself totally burned out on them, and I was very concerned that although I’m a fan of Aaron’s, I still wouldn’t enjoy this book.
YAY for being wrong!
I listened to the audiobook, and although it wasn’t voiced by Vikas Adams, it was pretty good. I had to speed it up though, I usually listen at 1.5x but I was at 2x for this one.
The book does start out by feeling stereotypical and I was so worried, but it started to diverge from other litrpgs at around 15%, (in respects to how the characters dealt with their situation, and in some of the world-building).
There are two main characters, a brother and sister named James and Tina. We get to see two totally different scenarios where players have been trapped inside a video game turned reality.
When the game goes haywire the brother and sister are in different locations. Tina was on her way to a raid when it happened and she’s with a large group of people auditioning for her guild. All around her people started dropping to the ground writhing in pain and unable to cope with an overload of sensory input. All at once, every player in the game lost contact with their sign out screens, their inventory, their entire interface for the game was wiped out and things “got real”. The geography and structures in the world expand, what used to take 4 hours to cross the entire map will now take days or weeks. Tiny yurts with nothing in them have expanded into family-sized dwellings fully decked out with furniture and living supplies, while castles have gone from big to enormous. The game essentially went from being a caricature of a fantasy world into a full-blown reality.
Tina is stuck between a rock and hard place, she’s trying to get a giant group of people up and moving away from the boss fight – but they are so bewildered and half of them don’t believe what’s going on or understand the true dire circumstances they’ve gotten themselves into. The demons and skeletons and every other baddy in the game have now turned sentient. They don’t just meander around waiting for you to go up to them to start a fight, they aren’t stupid, using the same predictable moves over and over again either. There are also no more respawns, no more unlimited consumable items, and casting takes much more mana than it did before – everything has become harder. Tina’s mission is to get everyone to safety, but to do that they have to cross days worth of wilderness full of things that want to kill them.
James finds himself in a very different situation when the change hit, he was out in the middle of nowhere in a small village of cat people all by himself. What he realizes very quickly is that every NPC in the game hates the Players. Unbeknownst to the Players, the NPC’s have been fully cogent during what they refer to as “The Nightmare”, where they were forced to re-live the same days, the same torments, the same deaths every single day. They knew the whole time that they were being controlled by an outside force, and they completely aware of what was happening when they were killed by fire, skinned alive, possessed by demons etc. The cat people want James and every other Player dead, they want revenge, and James is now surrounded by them. He has to earn their trust by helping them deal with an onslaught of problems. He tries explaining to them what a video game actually is, where he’s actually from, and why he knows so much more about their world than they do. He’s already completed the quests in their area, and those quests are now running wild without players to “solve the problems” of the villagers. Certain areas where people used to level up are now swarmed because every “quest” happening at once.
What I really loved about this is how much struggle the two MC’s go through when trying to adjust to the fact that they’re in a video game. I just read another LitRPG ‘stuck in a video game’ book and the MC was like “ok, I guess I’m in a video game now”. There was no struggle with the improbability of their situation, there was no thought of home, it left the character feeling very flat. In this book though, everyone is reeling from what happened, there’s a lot of character development and it makes this book stand out from the rest. I read a 3-star review saying the characters didn’t grow much, and that’s true – but this book also takes place over several days. I’d honestly say it’d be less realistic if the characters had some kind of massive growth and change in their personalities over that short of time period. The cahracters I felt did have much more depth than is typically delivered in this genre – there was a lot of development and foundations for them to grow in later books.
The struggle wasn’t just emotional, either. They had to adjust to all of these new bodies, James is now a cat person and he finds himself completely fluent in their language, despite not knowing it before. Tina’s character is a giant rock person, so when she first is dealing with her new body she’s falling over herself, grasping things too hard, and found it difficult just to move around. There are very interesting implications about fundamental changes each race has as far as persona/sexuality. A side character points out that he’s no longer attracted to humanoid female forms and really loves fish people now – as his character is a fish person. There’s a lot of thought that went into how very different a video game and a reality would be, and how hard it would be to adjust if you truly “became your character”.
I did not like Tina at all when I first started reading, it’s not that she wasn’t developed, she just rubbed me in all the wrong ways. She’s quick to anger, she’s not afraid of using force to get her way, she’s known for being bossy and she’s pretty relentless with her bitterness towards her brother. It’s clear she’s a type A, pull yourself up and work hard kind of person with little to no patience for those who don’t fall into line with her thinking. As I got to know her through the rest of the book I softened a bit to her, I wasn’t irritated reading her chapters after about the halfway point – but James is my man.
James is an easy going but kind of ‘lost’ person, he feels down about himself and considers himself a failure. He doesn’t get much support anymore from his family and feels like he’s not going anywhere in life. He tries his best to help the cat people despite their hatred for him. He’s played the game for many years, and each time he logs in and out of this particular village because it’s a lower level out of the way place, where he’s the only one who spawns there, and he’s begun to think of it as home.
Many LitRPG’s have heavy stats used throughout the book, where you’re told each and every time they level up in any aspect of their character, quite frankly I skip those paragraphs because they’re incredibly boring to me. Thankfully, this book took a different approach and got rid of the health bars, stat bars, and all of that in favor of something more nuanced. James is a level 80, so he’s capable of taking a beating from a ton of lower level mobs without taking much damage. He’s not able to tell specifically how much health he’s losing, but he knows that in certain areas of the game he will “out level” the general NPC’s and in others, he needs to watch his back.
This is a long damn review, but honestly the book is 500 pages which is considerably longer than most LitRPG’s – there was a lot to talk about 🙂
- female pov in litrpg
- multi pov
- lots of fantasy elements
- in depth world building
- lots of action
- Plot: 12.5/15
- Characters: 13.25/15
- World Building: 13.75/15
- Writing: 12.5/15
- Pacing: 12/15
- Originality: 13.5/15
- Personal Enjoyment: 9.5/10
Final Score: 87/100 – 5 stars (highly recommended)