Indie Book Review – Awaken Online (Ember Tarot #1) by Travis Bagwell

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Before I delve into this, I have to admit, despite LitRPGs being all the rage at the moment, this is the first one I’ve read. LikeĀ ever.

And with that in mind, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I downloaded this.

What I didn’t expect was to be blown away.

As you know, especially if you’ve read the Brian Helsing series, I’m a big fan of videogames, and RPGs in particular. And this book is literally every RPG fan’s dream.

A middle-aged man, Finn, whose life was turned (literally) upside-down by a car accident that killed his wife and left him crippled, is coerced by his daughter into picking up a new VR game. The headset – similar to those used in the anime, Sword Art Online – plugs you in so that you can feel, see, hear, smell everything as if it were real life.

In this new world, younger and with his legs fully functioning again, he’s met with cryptic prophecies by a Seer, then thrown into action, joining a guild for prospective mages and undergoing hellish ‘training’ at the hands of NPC teachers. Factions form amongst the players, conspiracies abound, and through it all Finn makes things hard for himself by refusing to go with the flow and, instead, forging his own path.

How does he do this? This is the fun part… In the real world, Finn is a computer programmer. The best, in fact, possibly rivaled only by his own daughter. And using his incredible programming skill and logical mind – and with not a little help from his JARVIS-like AI assistant, Daniel – he improves his HUD, figures out new spells and new abilities and just generally becomes a badass.

And that is what I love in this book, and in books in general – Power Creep. It’s the best thing about RPGs, and it seems it’s the best thing about LitRPGs too, if this book is anything to go by; a character starting off weak, with nary a spell to their name, then, level by level, gaining more and more power, till finally they’re a fireball-slinging beast, rounding up and mowing down packs of mobs and enemy players by the score.

This book has Power Creep by the shedload. And I lapped it up.

But more than that, it has soul. And character.

Finn himself is likeable, and you can’t help but grin when his keen mind sees a loophole in the system, ripe for exploitation. His daughter is cheeky, and the fact that she’s a stealthy rogue, able to drop in and out unannounced, makes her even better.

And even the NPCs have character. There’s a mysterious librarian who clearly knows more than he’s letting on. A sadistic Fire Mage instructor with a soft side. A Water Mage teacher with a chip on her shoulder. It’s Harry Potter, but for grown ups.

The prose is clever, the dialogue realistic, the description of the combat and the spell-crafting en pointe. It’s a longer read, but that’s good, you get to spend more time in the world. And though the book ends on a slight cliff-hanger, it still wraps up the first book’s story neatly enough that you’re left feeling satisfied, yet with an urge to go out and buy the next on in the series.

And buy it I will. Smashing book.