Battle Avatars (review)

bookshelves: sci-fifantasygamingtechnologyphilosophylitrpgbuddy-readkindlewuxia-xianxiaindie-publishing

A big part of my excitement going into Ed White’s book stemmed from the fact that though I’d long-since been interested in what the LitRPG subgenre had to offer, I hadn’t read any. In fact, the only gaming type book I can recall reading was Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.
Not even the seemingly uber popular Ready Player One, despite it being on my TBR for years. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when the author asked if I wanted to read his book in exchange for an honest review.

Then it hits me, an overwhelming sense of release, euphoria, and relief—an escape from the pain I feel every day. A tunnel of light, like hyperspace, flows around me and I’m standing in a darkened room lit by an immense irregular crystal sphere orbited by four smaller crystal shapes. A man hovers in the lotus position below the central sphere, clothed in white robes set aglow by the irregular crystals.

White’s prose was engaging, albeit not entirely up to professional standards. He is self-published, though, and one should come to expect less than pristine writing. I certainly wasn’t anticipating near flawlessness in that respect. My main critique, however, was the frequent comma splices. They’re grammatically incorrect and made for some disjointed or confusing prose. Overall, it wasn’t too jarring. Contrarily, many sentences and paragraphs vied for my attention, as evidenced by the numerous Kindle highlights, so it wasn’t like it was terribly written. Just inconsistent.

The worldbuilding was really impressive. It was, by far, my favorite aspect. Well, that and the actual gameplay, though the two were mutually exclusive. Or were they?

The Lenscape (online gaming community,) felt utterly real and feasible. Frighteningly feasible. I could see a scenario like this being technologically possible. That is what made it scary. The gameplay was all-encompassing and fully immersive by way of all five senses, as well as individual stats streaming across the page/screen. In all fairness, current VR technology allows the user to feel as if they’re right there, in the midst of the madness. I came to expect that with the premise of Battle Avatars, but what White delivered was something else. Something more. Or was it less? Only you can decide.

Similar to how the players were transported to this awesome, perilous world, I nearly was, too. Nearly because I wasn’t “right there.” Close, but not quite. Like a diligent observer, intently absorbing every detail about Greywaters, Lisa, Jonsey, Malcom, and the others. But who were those characters, really? What were their ambitions in life? Surely not just to play video games their whole lives, yes? What were their values, their ethics? Their basic belief systems? Unfortunately, I think the author’s main focus was worldbuilding, when in actuality, wouldn’t it have made a stronger narrative if he’d aimed for both, developmentally?

A shimmering wave arcs from the darkness above in a tornado of light around me and just as quickly spins out on a pink marble floor as I am transported to a place of white marble columns, colossal structures, and gardens that shame Washington and challenge Olympus. Mixed crowds of people walk the wide avenues between the impressive buildings and monuments to elder beings. Each wears unique garb from various stages of gameplay, but adventurers in armor of various layers of complexity, carrying a variety of weapons, fill most of the enormous square.

The character Graywaters (David, the main protagonist,) needed the most attention, though. His illness was vague. How much did he actually know about it? Was the author trying to weave an air of mystery around it? And short of one development towards the end, he showed virtually zero redeeming value. Is that too harsh? Maybe, but his transformation was barely present. I can buy it, sure, but it would’ve been significantly more impactful–and believable– if that process was shown, and not simply “told.” Worst of all, personally, was his blatant and consistent sexism. Look, I realize he was meant to be the epitome of your average, presumably middle-aged male, but both genders are so much more than sex and physical attributes. His thought processes, observations, and innuendos reminded me of a horny teenager. They were repetitious and degrading. Some might even say offensive. I wasn’t offended, but the frequency of it did make me angry after a while. I can see how some readers might be offended.

Instead, why not make the character stand out, to defy the cultural norm? Why not strive for excellence? For creativity and originality?

In complete seriousness, the various gameplay aspects made for a very fun read. It was hard to put down, in that respect. One downside? Leveling up took way too long. Not only did that detract some of its inherent joy, it also felt unrealistic. Case in point: prior to learning a bit of the Conglomerate’s questionable intent, the Lenscape would have totally been a game I’d play IRL, yet in all likelihood, I would’ve eventually quit after many hours of play with little to nothing to show for it. Please don’t misunderstand me. I fully appreciate a good, challenging game, but a better route might have been more difficult battles, with faster leveling up opportunities (i.e., more risk, more reward, more play.)

Lisa’s character was so adorable, with her pixie-like face, infectious little giggles, and in-game abilities. There were also suggestions of personal complexities, and I couldn’t help but wonder about her past. Was it a checkered one? If so, please don’t spare details.

Julia Beechum, prominent member of the aforementioned corporation and recruiter of many, was given several POV chapters, and they achieved two things: 1.) they dramatically helped clarify—to an extent—her character, as well as her personal stake in the company; 2.) they lent the novel an increasingly more serious and diabolical quality. Both were fascinating. Actually, her chapters were some of my favorites, especially as more information was revealed about both one and two.

And talking of experience, this world is intense. The scent of flowers, rotten leaves, water, and damp soil assaults me. The humidity clings and messes with your breathing the way it should. Sweat builds under my clothing and insects buzz all around. That itch that builds as you think about bugs starts and I rub the back of my neck.

Sprinkled throughout were references to wuxia and xianxia. In fact, the cover labels it as a xianxia novel. According to a Reddit thread, an example of the former is the film, Forbidden Kingdom, starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li, while wuxia would be more like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or The Matrix, with its propensity for physics-defying fight sequences. Both subgenres were present in the book, but the only way I knew what they were was via a Google search. Instead of leading the reader through the game (which resulted in its slower pace,) some insight into wuxia and xianxia would have been preferable and more interesting.

White raised the stakes considerably during the last quarter, and I was impressed with that. He took it places I never would have imagined, not just in plot but in Lisa’s development as well. There was one scene, in particular, between her and Greywaters that’s probably my favorite of the whole novel, because of the beauty of it, but mostly for its strong dialogue and directional shift it took the characters. Within the confines of the last fifty or sixty pages, White provided some answers, but ultimately left the reader with more questions. A lot more. I loved the weird mysteriousness and lurid quality of “the grey zone.” Those elements were exceptionally cool and well-done.

In its final pages, the author upped the ante even more, and that blew my mind. The consequences of that was literally jaw-dropping. I loved it. At the same time, I was expecting some semblance of resolution, at least. Another good twist that could’ve somehow rectified that would’ve been great. Unfortunately, I got the impression that the end basically served as a means to setting up Book II, Battle Avatars: The Forlorn Earth

Will I continue with the series? I haven’t decided yet.

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