The dedication of the book gave me hope: “To Lloyd Alexander, whose Chronicles of Prydain taught me that worlds of magic and adventure exist; and to Gary Gygax, who taught me how to play in them.” Lloyd Alexander is one of my heroes, and EGG (because his name is actually E. Gary Gygax) was responsible for some fun times when I was a kid. Also, this book “was selected as a winner of the inaugural Nerdist Collection Contest”, which should have meant it was chock full of geeky goodness. Don’t get me wrong – it certainly wasn’t a terrible book. But it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
In the 80’s, at the peak of the first Dungeons and Dragons wave, Joel Rosenberg began a series of novels (The Guardians of the Flame) about a group of college kids who suddenly find themselves in their characters’ bodies in the world of the game they’ve been playing. It’s been 33 years since that first book came out, so maybe now is a good time to try the idea out again. The biggest difference is that these kids are LARPers, actually putting on garb (they’re NOT costumes) and going out into an organized park to hike through the woods and interacting with actors to pursue a quest.
The other biggest difference … The Guardians of the Flame series had an advantage on this book, I felt, because – I suppose because the target audience skewed older – the gamers were college students instead of young high schoolers. That opened up the story in a completely different way, and made for a stronger story.
The problem is, basically, that Dave Barrett is no Joel Rosenberg (who is in a way another one of my heroes). There were some nice bits (“A darkness has risen in the East.” TJ chuckled. “It’s always the East, isn’t it? Sauron, Arawn, the Yankees…” Kudos for name-checking Arawn, and yes, the Yankees are evil.) But a line like “First, he doesn’t carry a sword. He carries a sword”… I’m sure there were supposed to be italics there. But there weren’t italics there.
I just failed to suspend disbelief for big chunks of the story. Example: Shortly after the group is blinked into the fantasy role, they come upon a group of huts – too small for a village, I think, described as “half a dozen ramshackle cottages clumped together along one side of the path. Between several of the buildings were makeshift roofs, under which some scrawny-looking goats had taken shelter.” The kids trek in, and attempt to engage the inhabitants in the kind of exchange that they’ve been having with the other actors they’ve encountered, and are puzzled by the reactions they get. Spoiler alert: the reason they get some strange responses is that these aren’t actors anymore: at some point in their cross-woods hike they crossed some kind of threshold into the world in which their game takes place. But despite the fact that this is a clump of hovels, with goats, the kids don’t notice anything unusual – and wouldn’t there be a noticeable smell?
Another small example: the thief character carries with him a string of bells to be put up around a campsite to act as an alarm in case of intruders. How does he carry it silently? It’s not impossible – but I would have liked it acknowledged that a thief, who is required to move without noise as part of his job, has to have a way to schlep bells around. (Are they jingle-bells-type bells? Or clapper-type bells? And let me just say I had to go on a brief rabbit-hole odyssey to find out if jingle bells have clappers (no); say what you will about Wikipedia, but that’s where I got an answer.)
And one more: the big hero-type guy refers to the less combat-ready members of the group as the “squishier” members. And then a little while later comes a line like “whom he referred to as the “squishier” members of the group”, as if it was the first time the little joke had been trotted out. I think in fact it happens a few times – eliciting the reaction “Yes. I know. You told me.” I really do hate that.
What kept distracting me throughout was that – well, two things, or one two-part thing. None of the kids ever thinks about the consequences of their disappearance – they don’t think about the people running the LARP, who will eventually realize that they have lost a handful of teenagers, and there’s going to have to be a massive search, and possibly – no, probably – lawsuits. The other part of that, of course, is that their families are going to be losing their minds with worry. But not a single one of the main characters ever says, or in the point of view scenes thinks “I’ll never see my mother again…” until way too far in. (I made a note at “location 1492”.) These are kids. They all live at home, whatever their home lives might be like. I found it very hard to buy that none of them ever stepped back and had to process the idea that their whole lives, from hot showers to microwave popcorn to their music to their families and pets, might be out of their reach forever.
It also kept bothering me that … these were kids. I suppose this might be something that the author expects to be waved away because if the target audience is the same age they probably won’t care. But … that’s not the way it should work. I don’t care if a book is aimed for a ten-year-old or a fifty-year-old, I expect it to be intelligent and well thought out. (I know. I know. I expect a lot.) A young adult book does not get to be dumb just because it’s a young adult book. And it just doesn’t work for me that teenagers, who are still getting used to the new ways their bodies work, are suddenly faced with possessing the bodies of their characters … and never so much as mention it. Instead of fairly ordinary kids they are now a mage, a thief, a fighter (who, if I recall correctly, is not human), a cleric, and so on, and one assumes that the characters are adult. In [book:The Sleeping Dragon], the college kids realize immediately that things are not as they were: the fighter has to become used to being basically himself but bigger and stronger. The girl who had been playing and now was inhabiting a mage is physically much the same, but needs to learn the ins and outs of her power. And one young man who is a paraplegic in this world finds himself in possession of a fully functional and agile body. The realizations and forced adaptations are immediate. And then very soon they find out that the magic is real and the swords are sharp, and it is absolutely tragic.
I will give Dave Barrett some credit for how the kids’ first battle is handled. But not all the credit – it could have been more convincing. The kids experience sharp swords and real magic, and death, and I didn’t entirely believe in how they coped.
It’s also a little odd that they talk about their situation in front of indigenous folks, and not a goblin among them ever says “what the heck are you talking about?” or wonders if they’re mad.
I also wasn’t thrilled that the book ended – spoiler alert – without much storyline resolution at all. I suppose that means the author expects a second book. So I guess I’ll never know.
One last note: I made a note at 96% on my Kindle edition: “if I wasn’t at 96% I would rage quit”. A goblin makes a moronic joke in Yoda fashion – well, here. I kind of wish this had been earlier in the book; it would have saved me a bit of time. “Within is where all his business our chief does. Well, his official business. For the other kind, the latrine he uses.” I skimmed the rest, muttering annoyedly under my breath.
The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.