‘Awaken Online: Precipice’ by Travis Bagwell

Awaken Online Precipice

WARNING: THIS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

The second book in the ‘Awaken Online’ series and it managed to improve on just about every aspect of the first. Continuing the story of Jason, the ruler of an undead city in a VR-RPG, as he seeks to consolidate and expand his power and influence. This time though, we also get to see more of the lesser characters in the first book, Frank and Riley, a deeper look at the main antagonist, Alex, as well as the AI who runs the game, Alfred.

I liked the first book, I found the story gripping and enjoyable. The main problems I had with the book however were the characters. Whilst I liked Jason and his arc, I really wasn’t a fan of Alex and felt like Riley could have been done better. This was not the case with this book however. The three main protagonists all felt real, they were all clearly flawed people who were trying to do their best and overcome the obstacles in their lives. For Jason, it was the creeping, unseen overconfidence and ability to treat others as more than pawns in his schemes, Riley had deep trust issues, and Frank had a major case of lacking in confidence. All three characters were forced to work through these problems in order to succeed in what they were trying to do and were written well. Out of the three, Frank’s arc was, for me, done the best. His high achieving family, mixed with him being overweight, left a sense of credibility for why he would be so lacking in confidence. As well as that, being forced to recognise that he was being carried by his friends and was essentially, the bitch of the group, was a good way of kick starting his character development. Driven by his anger of always being the worst and his own shame, he begins to fight more and gain equal footing with his friends. Although I thought he went from zero to hero a little too quickly, especially when you compare the developments of Jason and Riley, I still felt it was believable. I still struggle with the character of Riley however. I really like her, I just find that she’s a little inconsistent throughout the book. You can never quite predict how she is going to act or react to something. Yes on one hand this is a good thing as it keeps giving a few surprises, however it can be a little frustrating as she doesn’t always have the best reasons for doing what she does, character wise.

I really liked that we saw things from Alex’s point of view. At first I thought that I’d find his sections of the story a little boring and distracting from the main plot of Jason and co. However, I really enjoyed how Alex was given several chances at redemption but continued to make bad choices, choosing the easy path over the hard one every time. This stands in stark contrast with Jason, who continually chooses the harder path, because he knows that ultimately it’ll reap far better rewards for everyone, not just himself. It is here that my only real complaint can be found, and it mirrors one I had in the first book. I still think that Alex’s character is too extreme, the things he does in the real world are ridiculous and over the top. Yes his dad being extremely rich will always help, but you can only assault so many people before the police finally have enough, and blackmail so many dangerous people before they too have enough. There are points in the book where characters accuse Jason of “being like Alex”, which is nonsensical due to no matter what he does, he is completely the opposite to Alex which anyone would be able to see. It would have been far more interesting is Alex had been more normal and he and Jason being genuinely similar with their making the opposite decisions to the same problems. That way there would have been a really intriguing character dynamic between the two and others. It would also further underpin the idea that Jason is being seen as evil, despite only making decisions that better his city and his people, whereas Alex is seen as good, but actively only brings death to those around him.

Finally, I was a bit fan of the religious undertones of the book. It would have been so easy to just ignore or mess it up, but Travis has done a really good job at showing how religions and cults can quickly be started. Travis also did a great job in showing how easy it is to misunderstand or jump to conclusions about someone and develop a negative view of them based simply on not having the whole story.

I was thoroughly engrossed in ‘Awaken Online: Precipice’ throughout, even more so than the first. The cliff-hanger at the end of the book was done very well, much like at the end of the first, leaving me wanting more and eagerly anticipating the third book in the series (not including the two shorter ones about Riley and a OC, respectively) without feeling cheated or annoyed.

‘Gil’s All Fright Diner’ by A. Lee Martinez

Gils_all_fright_diner

WARNING: THIS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

I think that the cover for ‘Gil’s All Fright Diner’ might be one of my favourite covers of all time. In all honesty, it’s the main reason that I read, and kept reading (more on that later) the book. It’s by no means a bad book or story, in fact it’s actually a good one which I enjoyed, I just think that it’s important to note that the reason I finished this book was because I liked the cover so much.

I found ‘Gil’s All Fright Diner’ really hard to get into, having to start and restart reading it several times. In the end I had to make a noticeable effort to actually carry on reading. This isn’t indicative of the book being poorly written, boring, or anything like that, I just wasn’t really gripped by anything it offered for at least the first quarter, maybe even third, of the book. That being said, once it did draw me in, I was very much into it, enjoying it a lot. I have tried to go over it and work out a few times exactly what it was I was having a problem with and can’t quite put my finger on it. Yet I know that any other book with a less cool cover I would certainly have put down and never returned to.

However, after it’s uninspiring start (for me at least), I really started to enjoy the ideas behind the supernatural creatures and entities A. Lee Martinez has throughout the book. All of the ‘things’ mostly follow the tried and tested formulas: Vampires “sleep” during the day and survive through stealth and speed, whereas werewolves are straight up ‘tank’ killing machines who can rapidly heal and are much more beholden to their emotions and desires. Beyond these things however, all the supernatural elements seem more grounded than in most other fiction. The characters of Earl and Duke are characters who happen to be a vampire and a werewolf, respectively, rather than simply defined by it. Everything is treated with a measure of “you already know this stuff” so no time is wasted explaining it. We all know a stake through the heart of a vampire is a foil, so when it’s brought up in the story it’s quickly waved, unlike so many books which would then devote pages into explaining exactly why that is the case.

I really liked the characters of Earl and Duke, especially the latter, because both seem like genuine real people who happen to be in this weird version of our own world. Earl is a whiney, quick tempered vampire who is generally just dissatisfied with his life, or rather, after-life. Duke is a quiet, strong willed, bear of a man, slow to anger and a seemingly decent guy. The two are an odd couple but their friendship never seems false, every interaction they have feels genuine and true. For me, this was the best part of the whole book, I really, really liked the friendship that Earl and Duke shared because of just how real it felt.

I felt like A. Lee Martinez tried a little hard with the story to make it quirky and not follow the usual tropes in the usual ways. The hot teenage girl and her dumb, devoted, sex obsessed, boyfriend being the ones trying to bring about the end of the world was done well, but not amazingly. Their characters were great, they just didn’t serve the story as well as they could have. Likewise, a lot of the humour in the book, whilst bringing a smile, didn’t really elect any genuine laughs. It just felt at times like Martinez was trying too hard to break the mould and turn conventions on their head, which pulled away from the things he was doing really well, which were his characters. I don’t think that a single character in this book was a weak one, which is rare for me. I genuinely liked and could believe in all of them throughout.

Overall I enjoyed the book without loving it. A solid story with some very cool characters and an awesome cover. Well worth a read if you’re interested in supernatural fiction which isn’t the ‘Twilight Saga’.

‘Awaken Online: Catharsis’ by Travis Bagwell

Awaken Online Catharsis

WARNING: THIS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

Imagine ‘Ready Player One’, but the main protagonist is the villain of the game world rather than a hero. ‘Awaken Online’ is a brand new virtual reality MMO set in a medieval/fantasy world in which players are given full freedom to go and do whatever they want, all under the watchful eye, and subtle guidance, of the AI who runs the world, Alfred. The usual dynamics of the traditional good vs evil story and the characters involved are flipped around with the “evil” necromancer instead being the man in the right, whereas the “warrior of light” is firmly the antagonist. As I’ve said in previous blog posts, this kind of setting always appeals to me, I love the idea of twisting and reversing expectations to create engaging and fresh stories full of grey rather than simple black and white.

The first book in the ‘Awaken Online’ series is a strangely engrossing page turner. The writing, especially a lot of the dialogue, isn’t especially awe inspiring. Travis Bagwell (for this book at least, however I haven’t yet read any of his others) isn’t a literacy master who is going to be confused with Patrick Rothfuss or Phillip Pullman. However, his story and the ideas he includes within the book are fantastic. Yes, some people will call it a bit of a rip-off of ‘Ready Player One’, but that is very unfair. Aside from the starting idea of the story mainly being set in a virtual reality game, the two are almost completely different.

It is very clear that Travis has spent a lot of time and thought in creating the game that the book focuses on, ‘Awaken Online’. Obviously it’s a game unlike any we will see in the foreseeable future, but it feels like a complete game with its own clear rules and limitations. My biggest gripe with ‘Ready Player One’ (it’s the obvious comparison) was that throughout the book it never felt like there were these things, that players could literally just do anything. The rules and limitations weren’t clear which weakened the story. ‘Awaken Online’ on the other hand, is a game where I could genuinely imagine this game existing. The idea of Alfred, the AI who controlled the game was a cool one. I liked how it was subtly suggested as the book went on that ‘he’ might not be all good and that potentially something a little off was happening. This did a really good job of setting up the rest of the series without having to resort to the clichéd idea of an incomplete ending just to hook you into buying the next one. Also, something I really liked was the idea of players’ affinities with different magic being a reflection on how they play the game, almost like a morality system. However, much like in real life, too much of anything can easily become a bad thing, no matter how good it starts off. For example, it is said within the book that the “light magic” is a reflection of confidence, however too much can quickly turn into arrogance.

My biggest problem with ‘Awaken Online’ was the characters. Although I liked the main character, Jason, there was never any real question about him not being the hero of this story, despite being, for all intents and purposes, the villain. Yes he does some pretty dark things, such as causing a zombie uprising and wiping out an entire city, but the majority of those he kills are just computer NPCs. Jason’s heart is always in the right place and the times when he does do things that could be construed as “evil” are almost always mostly justified. Who hasn’t played Skyrim and occasionally killed everyone in a town for no other reason than boredom or just to see if you can (always have a back-up save kids). Doing that is a much more malevolent act than what Jason does. On the flip side of this, Alex, our antagonist, is far too legit evil. He is a clear sociopath with utterly zero redeeming qualities. I would have much preferred the characters to fit in a bit more of the grey areas rather than being so clear cut. If Jason had been more of a “villain-hero” a-la ‘Vicious’, someone more of an anti-hero than a good guy, it would have given his character more depth. Likewise, if Alex had just been a bit of a dick and rather than a full-blown sociopath then the story would have had more tension and the climax would have been far greater. Alex was so evil and bad that it was obvious from the moment we met him how it would end. By bringing him down a few notches and giving him a few redeeming characteristics, it would have made the outcome potentially more uncertain. An intelligent tactical genius vs an arrogant rich boy was only ever having one ending. Despite this however, the character development of Jason throughout the book is very well executed. His journey from being a downtrodden, harshly bullied and neglected ‘wimp’ to being confident and independent is well done and believable. It is not just a jump from one to the other, he questions himself throughout about what he is feeling and what he wants, slowly morphing into the character he becomes by the end.

On this train of thought I felt that Travis really missed a trick with the character of Riley. A good, nice girl who is being blackmailed by the sociopath, eventually building up the courage to stand up to him. Due to the fact that we were basically already getting this character development from Jason, it would have been cooler if hers had been different rather than more of the same. If Riley had started out as a bit of a bitch and less of the good girl she was, then her changing and developing into a better person would have been far better. If she’d started off in a similar place as the (not so sociopathic) Alex, then as a reaction to the events in the story she could start to see herself for what she was and strive to make amends. This would have worked in a wonderful contrast with Alex who could have become a worse person after the same events. In all, I felt that the main point of this book was that people are in control of their own lives and can be or accomplish anything they set their mind to. It would have just been a cool extra if it had shown that people can also be redeemed. All this being said however, whereas I was initially not that into it, I grew too really like the character of Onyx the cat.

Overall I really liked ‘Awaken Online: Catharsis’. The weaknesses of the characters were more than made up for by the ideas and story presented by Travis Bagwell. The pace and structure throughout the book were well done and I was engaged from start to finish.

‘All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries)’ by Martha Wells

All Systems Red

WARNING: THIS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

When I was recommended this book, the synopsis immediately drew me in. The main protagonist is an apathetic, lazy, pessimistic, socially awkward android that refers to itself as ‘Murderbot’, who after hacking their governing control systems could easily have gone on a murdering spree, but preferred to watch TV instead.

Despite all that, ‘Murderbot’ is a surprisingly relatable character who I felt genuinely connected to. It spends the majority of the story having a bit of an existential crisis about not knowing what it wants or what it wants to do, just wanting to be left alone and not have to deal with talking to people. This isn’t the futuristic all-knowing A.I. that I have come to expect from these types of stories, but is instead a character who just happens to be an android.

The story itself isn’t particularly mind-blowing, but it’s well written. There aren’t any particular weaknesses to the book, boring bits or parts which feel like they are dragging down the plot. It keeps a good pace throughout and is ultimately fairly satisfying. It’s a good book without being a great one. The only problem it does have is that the world feels a little unoriginal, futuristic corporations who essentially are the powers behind colonising new planets. It didn’t feel particularly clear to me why the main conflict was happening in the book however. I couldn’t really understand the motives of the group who were killing and hunting the other colonists groups on the planet other than some vague mentions of previous civilisations being found.

That being said however, I did enjoy the book. I found the story simple, yet page turning, and I really liked the idea and character of ‘Murderbot’. I will probably look into reading the next book in the series because I would like to see what happens with ‘Murderbot’ now he has gone off alone into the universe. ‘All Systems Red’ is well worth a read if you’re a fan of the science fiction genre, but fancy something a little different to the usual.

‘The Murders of Molly Southbourne’ by Tade Thompson

The Murders of Molly Southbourne

WARNING: THIS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

‘The Murders of Molly Southbourne’ is a weird, dark, but gripping story. It horror story with a firm set of rules that it sticks to throughout. The story is relatively simple, it is about a girl, Molly Southbourne, who grows up on a farm before going off to university. However, she and her parents live (and indeed die) with the ever present issue of that every time Molly bleeds, a few days later a copy of her turns up and tries to murder her. The premise of the story is very out of the box, but it works extremely well by avoiding doing what so many horror stories end up trying to, explaining everything. Throughout the book Molly begins to formulate theories, and late on there is even a very heavy implication of what could have caused this unique blood disorder, but by the end, that is a question that is still unanswered.

I really liked the book and was not left in any way disappointed by the lack of full explanation before the story ended. The character of Molly was deep and relatable, even with her being so highly intelligent and socially awkward due to her upbringing of being home-schooled. Her relationship with “the mollies” is ever changing and completely understandable, dancing between curious about them and inconvenienced.

The main idea which drives ‘The Murders of Molly Southbourne’ is very skilfully executed, and I was really drawn in by it. Yes, there are obvious plot holes and serious questions that arise when you think deeply about it, but the book does very well of just leaving these alone and focusing on the story rather than explaining itself. With stories such as these there needs to be a clear set of rules and it needs to stick to those rules in order to work. Tade Thompson does this masterfully throughout. At no point was I left scratching my head or having to re-read parts to understand what was going on. Even better than that was the lack of a “twist” which so many horror stories feel the need to include, where the established rules are broken in order to get a cheap shock.

I call this book a horror story because for me that is the closest I think it fits into any genre. However, I think it was just darker than out and out scary. At no point did I truly fear for the main protagonist, Molly (although that was mostly due to the framing of the story). Yet, whereas I did foresee how it would end for her parents, I was still moved by their demise. The relationships within the family were very well done, subtle and not overplayed, and it was due to the letters sent by her father after Molly moved to university which really allowed that emotional connection.

Overall I was greatly surprised by how much I enjoyed ‘The Murders of Molly Southbourne’. By no means was it the perfect book, or even a 5-star masterpiece, but for what it was it was very well done and has left me eagerly anticipating the rumoured sequel.