The concept of transporting an average person into an alternate realm for high adventure has been around about as long as stories have been told. Authors such as Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs all took swipes at this concept over a century ago. Science fiction and fantasy writers have followed that route time and time again ever since. With the advent of table top role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Gamma World, Call of Cthulhu (among many others) in the seventies, the concept of transporting oneself into a fantasy realm took on a whole new meaning. Since then, more and more writers have embraced this concept, including the likes of Terry Brooks (Magic Kingdom for Sale), Joel Rosenberg (Guardians of the Flame), and Stephen R. Donaldson (Thomas Covenant). Time marches on, and more recently, a new subgenre has been gaining popularity, thanks mainly to the influx of MMOs, or massively multiplayer online games, such as Everquest, World of Warcraft, and numerous other computer (or mobile ap) based games where a player can craft a character in a strange fantasy world and join thousands if not millions of others endlessly questing for new adventures. This subgenre is known as LitRPG, though another variation is called Game Lit. Much like with their predecessors, the characters in these written works are tossed into a fantasy realm, though in this instance, it is a computer game universe. It may be a virtual reality, but it is with real world consequences-the characters are in true mortal peril with no reboots or extra lives to spare.
This is where J.E. Reed’s first novel, Running With The Wolves, lands. We are introduced to Kiuno, who wakes up one morning in a strange, primordial forest realm, separated from the real world where she lives in with her husband, working a regular job, and living a regular life. She can remember her life back home, but not her true name (Kiuno is her online ID-the one she created for the games she plays). Searching for anyone else in this wild and strange place, she comes across other survivors who are struggling to come to grips with this strange and dangerous place. It doesn’t take long for her to realize that she has somehow been thrust into a game she played with numerous others online called Chronopoint, where she was an expert at building alliances and facing enemies both human and inhuman. With that in mind, she forms bonds with others with the goal of finding her online friends (including her real life husband) and to discover a way out of this lethal place, which is made of ten different realms, each one far more dangerous than the one before.
While the story is filled with fantastic creatures and strange magic (Kiuno has to figure out how to manage the extremely potent and dangerous magic she possesses), this boils down to a story about survival and finding those around you who you can trust and build friendships with. Everyone you didn’t know before, when it was just an online game, is a potential threat that might be willing to kill you to survive and find a way to the tenth realm where they might find a way to get back home.
For a first novel, this is a very solidly written work of fantasy, with a main character that is well fleshed out and worth rooting for, along with the friends she connects with, both new and old, in her journeys. The editing is solid, though I did have a gripe with an overabundance of pronouns and some confusion, at times, as to who was speaking a given line-words are spoken but the actions in the same paragraph are that of someone else. Overall though, the writing and editing is crisp and the action moves at a rapid pace. It did seem a bit odd that Kiuno seems to be about the only female character of any relevance in this, the first book of what is likely a trilogy. There are other females, but none seem to take up more than a paragraph here or there, while there are numerous male characters to challenge and engage Kiuno in both battle and friendship.
Another minor criticism is that while each of these realms are quite perilous, with the introduction of several creatively fiendish monsters, it seems as though there isn’t a vast amount of difference from one realm to the next, except that each is inferred to be incrementally more dangerous. Much of the terror in this tale lies in the nightmares that Kiuno is going through-hoping her husband still lives while watching those around her die gruesome deaths as she learns how to control the lethal magic the realms has gifted her with. The monsters she faces represent only brief interludes on occasion.
The story does draw you in, despite the universe the author has created being a bit sparse when it comes to the fantastical (again, there are a few run-ins with some quite fantastical monsters, but they are somewhat limited). The hope is that as our protagonist and her band of loyal allies move deeper into the ten realms and closer to the ‘front lines’ where the war to find a way home is being fought, that there will be more to see, and more to challenge her beyond her own fears and insecurities.
Her closest friends are well thought out characters that I grew to both appreciate and enjoy, though the villains in this book were fairly uninteresting. While there are inhuman monsters that come in many shapes and sizes, none serve as more than a passing danger. The human monsters are a far greater threat and much more vicious, but unfortunately, none hold the reader’s attention for very long. As the author continues to shape this world and crafts more and greater challenges for the heroes of the piece, it is my hope that Kiuno becomes more of the natural leader her companions believe her to be.
Again, this is a solid debut novel and I look forward to checking out the second book in the series.
Running With The Wolves can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Running-Wolves-Chronopoint-Chronicles-Book-ebook/dp/B07CH47MVW/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1551067659&sr=8-6&keywords=running+with+the+wolves
Shards of Reality is a story written in a new fantasy subgenre that I haven’t been exposed to previously called LitRPG. Given that I spent several years buried in the world of Norrath via Everquest, the Sony Online Entertainment massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG for short), this seems like a natural extension into the realm of literature for me to check out. This of course means I haven’t been exposed to other LitRPG works before reading this book so I don’t know all the tropes or rules involved.
Of course, if you’ve read fantasy, you are at least somewhat familiar with the concept of leaving our reality and entering an alternate fantasy universe, whether it be something along the lines of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever or Magic Kingdom for Sale. Those are tales not attached to any sort of game, though Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame series took that step with a Dungeons and Dragons type game where the characters/players are involuntary thrust into the world where they role played warriors, wizards, and rogues. LitRPG takes this a step further, at least with Tim Long’s new series (this book is Enter The Realm Book 1) by making it so those entering the realm realize they are still actually in the game, not some alternative universe, and this game is an MMORPG, similar to the likes of Everquest or World of Warcraft. Furthermore, the game elements stay intact. There are still levels, experience to gain, stats to get from weapons and spells, mana pools to be used when casting spells, hit points, and all the lingo gamers are familiar with, like ‘Ding!” when a character gains a level, “mob” which is short for mobile, or a non-player character that you can attack, or in many cases, a monster, and plenty of other bits and pieces of jargon.
Our main character, Walt, is a game tester and slacker who has been thrust into a version of the MMORPG his company made and runs, Realms of Th’loria. He has no idea how he got there, and when he discovers another co-worker, Oz, is there with him, they set out to figure out what the heck is going on. While Walt is intrigued by the idea of being in the game he has played for years, he isn’t his favorite high level character that took him years to build up, he is instead a “noob” or a level one character with no skills or weapons. Oz, who is even less happy with this situation, is in the same boat. Being familiar with the game environment and monsters gives them some advantages, though they quickly realize that this is a rundown, grungier version of the world they have played in their virtual reality helmets back in the real world. After hooking up with another co-worker who is stuck in Th’loria with them, they discover that this isn’t just a different version of the game they’ve played, but that there is plenty more mystery involved with this place, and why they’re here. Of course, this is the first of a series of books, so more questions are posed than answered as these unwilling heroes of the realm are forced to venture forth to gain the experience needed to provide them with a few answers and the skills they need to survive.
I’m not sure how much I like the comparison and contrast between LitRPG and the more immersive, for lack of a better word, fantasy realms that people from our world end up stumbling into. The idea of looking at a weapon and knowing its stats because they are emblazoned on the hilt, having a HUD inside your skull that shows your health, mana, and how much experience you need to hit the next level does take a bit away from the fantasy aspect of it for me, though I appreciated being in the know as a former gamer, as it were. Reading this book made me nostalgic for those times, a decade ago, when I was grinding experience and was the leader of my own guild of players in Everquest, all of us striving to get better loot and gain levels so we could unlock new skills and go on even tougher adventures. Of course, we weren’t trying to escape the game like our main characters here, and their whining complaints, especially Oz’s, was a bit annoying, though realistic; a character on a screen getting hit and taking damage is a whole lot different than feeling it when a dagger gets shoved into your back.
Overall, this story was fun. Someone who hasn’t gamed in an MMORPG may feel a bit confused at points, and for those who want full-fledged escapism from reality, they might find this type of book a little bit too self-aware, but if you enjoy the idea of being thrust into an adventure and a mystery to boot, the LitRPG subgenre and Shards of Reality in particular is something to check out.
Shards of Reality can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/SHARDS-REALITY-LitRPG-novel-Enter-ebook/dp/B075RSCJZ3/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8