One of the challenges in trying to find new audiobook series to read is that the reviews on places like Audible can be a bit… over-positive. I’ve recently been listening to ‘The Land,’ a high-fantasy audiobook series that gets very high marks in reviews, and while it may have some strange appeal for folks who love role-playing games (RPGs), it may not be quite so interesting to non-gamers, or women (whether they love RPGs or not).
The author of the series, Aleron Kong, has dubbed himself the “Father of LitRPG.” [Update: it turns out there is some significant controversy over Mr. Kong’s self-declaration of paternity over the genre, and attempts at trademarking the term. I’ve been contacted by some passionate members of the larger LitRPG and GameLit communities, who are working hard to keep this from happening. As someone who has dealt with trademark issues in the past, I can sympathize, so I’m adding this note to be clear that I’m now aware that this book series did NOT invent LitRPG. If you want to read some excellent discussion of the issues surrounding this, check out https://litrpgforum.com/]. What is “LitRPG,” you might ask? Apparently, it’s the process of creating a novelization of your RPG, and keeping all the specific statistical number-based rules information in the story; indeed, as a feature of the story.
The idea is this: a 20-something young man from a future where VR gaming is a big deal, but who seems to have every geeky pop-culture reference from our times at his easy reference, wakes up in a high-fantasy world where he is some kind of special human, called a “chaos-seed” who has basically unlimited potential, and may have some form of immortality.
The twist is that, though the world is as real (and dangerous) as you could imagine a high-fantasy realm to be, it also literally works like a computer RPG.
As he experiences the world, he is constantly presented with informational prompts that appear in his mind that are pretty much what you’d deal with playing a detailed RPG on a computer. He knows he has statistics and abilities, experience and levels, and what’s more, as an experienced gamer in his previous life on Earth, he darn well knows how to work the system. One of his key motivating factors is maximizing his experience gains and leveling his abilities and skills, and as part of the story, he takes specific and calculated actions to do so, like casting spells over and over again to improve his casting, or making sure to take special potions that boost experience right before doing things that are likely to grant him experience. In short: the protagonist is a munchkin with pretty flexible morals.
But what’s also a little weird is that this isn’t just the situation for the protagonist; effectively the entire world works this way, and characters actually talk to each other about leveling up, buffing their skills, and so on. Though our hero is the only one who appears to actually have had a previous life where this sort of stuff was just part of games.
And here is one place where the series will either interest people or will bore them to death: while half the story is a pretty basic telling of his adventures in The Land, starting a town, taking on quests, battling monsters, and so on, half of the content is – and I mean this literally – reading off the game prompts that the protagonist sees that tell him about the people or monsters he sees, the loot he wins, or his own personal stats.
There are stretches in the books where all that’s happening is listening to the basic information about every single piece of loot he’s taken away from some vanquished foe. In many places, this stuff goes on for five, or even 10 minutes. “Congratulations! You have found steel short sword. Base damage 8-11. Max Damage 10-13. Durability 9 of 11. Frequency: common. Quality: Average.”
It happens over, and over, and over again. And over again.
As for the story itself, it’s a reasonably interesting high-fantasy adventure in a world where we don’t need much detail because, for readers who have played a lot of fantasy RPGs, everything seems pretty darn familiar. The writing is straightforward; it comes across as reasonably-proficient fan-fiction that probably needed a stronger editorial pass before seeing publication. The repetition of the game prompts is mind-numbing at times; they could have been done once, and then given a shorthand afterwards to save a lot of pain (unless the author was actually trying to use as many words as possible to increase his level in writing… which would be appropriate to the logic of the setting). There are glaring discontinuities, such as that the weight of every item identified in the stories is given in metric kilograms, but every length or distance is given in imperial feet, yards, and miles.
And then there’s the casual, but pervasive, sexism.
For stories that promote an ideal of racial equality, the enlightenment pretty much stops there, and gender equality (or respect, at least) is nowhere to be seen. Female characters mostly fall into three basic categories: Earth-mother types, bitches, and victims of abuse who need to be rescued. Half of the protagonist’s internalized bon mots are sexualized stereotypes (women are only mollified by shiny objects, for example), and there’s a running gag for multiple characters making derogatory references about ex-girlfriends and ex-wives. It’s puerile writing, and where much of it played for supposed laughs, it just comes across as misogynistic and needlessly rude.
As I suggested above, the protagonist also has very flexible morals. While he wants to build a town where all races can live together in equality, he’s got no qualms about torturing and killing captives for information and experience points or using mind control to make sentient creatures turn on their kin and kill each other. Oh, and once those captives are dead, he’ll also do some pretty gruesome things to their bodies so he can make some useful potions. At one point he pretty much starts a personal war with a clan of Kobolds because, while he sneaks through their tunnels to get home, he just can’t pass up stealing one of their relics and plenty of treasure.
While he’s written as kind of a goofy geek-bro, his situational ethics pretty much make him a monster.
The bright spot in all this is the performance by Nick Podehl, an audiobook regular, who brings characters to life with his many voices and accents. He successfully creates multiple races who all sound like different, real people. There are Japanese-sounding Sprites, and multiple Scottish-sounding Dwarves, each with distinct vocal characteristics. When a character is young, you hear a young voice; different women sound like different women. Even the monsters, who often speak, have their own personalities. Indeed, I strongly believe that at least two stars of every review this series has received on Audible must be due to Podehl’s work.
So, can I recommend this series?
No. At least, not as a “good read.” I can suggest people try it out as a novelty, especially if they are into high-fantasy RPGs. You can spend a lot of time listening to the “game” prompts and building an idea of what the actual rules of the world are. But while the things that happen may be interesting to gamers, it’s hard to invest emotionally in the protagonist, and you’ll find yourself pulled out of the story and shaking your head about some comment or another that falls flat every few minutes.
Boy, am I really looking forward to the next KingKiller Chronicles book to finally come out (Podehl reads those as well).