Posted June 3, 2016on:
This is a most unusual book review, because I am not going to tell you the name of this book, the name of the author, or the year the book was written. You don’t get any cover art either. We all judge books by their covers and all that, so I’m curious what everyone’s thoughts will be if I tell you everything you need to know about the book except what you’d see on a bookstore shelf. A deliberate experiment, if you will. And don’t worry, I’ll reveal the author and cover art in a few days. For those of you who recognize this book, or think you do, please, please don’t reveal the book’s title in the comments.
Are any of you familiar with the anime TV shows Sword Art Online or Log Horizon? In these shows, gamers get transported into the world of their MMO video game, and have to survive. This book has a similar, if simplified premise. A bunch of college kids are in a table-top Role Playing Game club, with a professor as their game master. I won’t get into the how’s or why’s, but the professor is able to transport the students to the fantasy role playing world, and the students have to survive. What’s really neat here is that while everyone comes through into the fantasy world as their characters (a cleric, or dwarf, or thief, etc) and with the skills and attributes (strength, speed, dexterity, etc) from their character sheet, they also retain all their knowledge and morals from the real world. One woman depends on her real world travel experiences to help her haggle with traders, there’s even some “innovative” WWF style fighting moves that no one else in the arena had ever seen.
At it’s heart, this is a coming-of-age fantasy quest story . The goal is to find the gate between worlds, so they can get home to the real world. But, as we learn, not everyone wants to go home. Sure, home has modern dentistry, and cars, and our parents, and health insurance. But one guy, if he goes home, the only thing waiting for him is his wheelchair and people pitying him. Here, in the fantasy world, he can walk. He can do all the things he can’t do at home. Another character, this is the first time in his life he’s respected for his knowledge and abilities. If he goes home, it’s back to being the guy everyone makes fun of. It was neat, how some characters abandon their real world first names right away to only go by their fantasy role play character names, and how others never take on their characters names because they don’t want to be these fantasy world characters, and how others have an internal conflict as to who they are because they have a compelling reason to be a little bit of both. The author presents the character’s inner conflicts with subtlety. The author doesn’t shy away from tough subjects either. Like another very popular series, main characters die – usually in shockingly awful ways.
Finally free of her family’s judgement, one of the girls in the group hops from boy to boy as she pleases, and the guys in the group have to suddenly deal with the double standard of if a boy does it, it’s fine, but if a girl does it, somehow it isn’t ok? I wouldn’t have expected such a forward thinking conversation about slut shaming in a book that advertises itself as a fantasy quest story. Speaking of forward thinking conversations, the characters also have to deal with the deaths of people in their group, post traumatic stress disorder, rape culture, and how people with disabilities are treated. It would be so easy for any author to make those discussions preachy and heavy handed, or overly plot device-y, but in this book, the opposite is true. Everything felt organic. It’s a discovery, it’s coming-of-age, it’s becoming the person you knew you could be.
As I said, the “quest” of this story is about getting home. I’m not going to spoil any of the surprises, but there ends up being an extra step, and the extra step involves asking a high priestess for help. She’s happy to help, for a price of course. And that’s so cliche, right? But the price she asks, and how she asks it, and *why* she asks it, was just so absolutely perfect. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. That scene, with the priestess and everyone else, is probably one of my favorite scenes in a fantasy book, ever. I read it at least 3 times. I’m probably going to reread that scene again a few times.
There’s a great juxtaposition happening here – a group who is limited by the “expectations” of the world, such as if you’re a cleric you’re responsible for healing people, or if you’re a thief you can’t help but pick people’s pockets, against the fact that all these people are college kids who are continually asking themselves what the hell am I doing here? Why am I trying to steal from this person? Do I really believe saying the words of this spell will cure my friend’s mortal injury? There’s a lot of layers of interesting things happening here, and the pacing and writing is spot on, so you don’t even realize it’s happening.
Does this sound like a book you’d want to read? If you woke up in your favorite gaming world tomorrow, what would you do?