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Ghost in the Game

Author: Christopher Keene

Dream State Saga, vol. 3

My rating: 4 of 5

Noah has made the difficult choice to work for Wona–the company he had believed responsible for his girlfriend Sue’s death as well as the deaths of several other individuals–in order to find those truly responsible and hopefully see justice done. But that choice has come with a cost as most of his friends in the Dream State now see him as having betrayed them . . . which he kind of deserves, actually. He’s trying to fight for the greater good and hope they come around eventually. Of course, working for Wona has its perks, too. Cushy living conditions and great pay IRL, position and privilege in-game–it’s not all bad. But things continue to get more complicated as players in the Dream State find themselves attacked by seemingly untraceable random attackers . . . especially when one of these Screamers, as they quickly become known, shows up wearing the face of Noah’s friend Chloe’s brother, one of several beta-testers who had previously disappeared. Now it’s up to Noah to bring together a functional team and figure out what’s going on and who is behind it all.

As with the first two Dream State books, I found Ghost in the Game to be a treat to read. Keene continues to impress with his world building, giving us a sweeping, imaginative view of the Dream State world in its many iterations. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I really think that his way of presenting the world and the way the characters interact with it in-game are not only one of his greatest strengths as an author, but it’s also some of the best I’ve read, period. It manages to be immersive, easily understood, and captivating. I really enjoyed that in this volume we move away somewhat from the revenge theme, getting into more mystery, adventure, and relationship building/repair. There’s definitely some intriguing plot going on, which is fun to read, and it’s nice to get more interpersonal development in this volume as well, especially with where Back in the Game left us. I’m still not sure about Noah’s way of looking at the whole situation, but after three volumes, I’ve basically come to the conclusion that he and I just think really differently about stuff . . . and it’s actually kind of neat to have a character that is developed enough that I can draw that kind of conclusion about him. I also quite enjoyed getting to see more of the characters IRL in this volume; combining both in-game and IRL character interactions seems to add a lot to the character development and really flesh Noah’s group out as individuals. I should mention, we get left with a bit of a cliffie, or at least with lots of room for plot development in future volumes, which I am looking forward to. I would recommend Ghost in the Game, particularly for gamers, cyberpunk fans, and LitRPG fans in particular.

NOTE: I received a free review copy of Back in the Game from the author in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this review.



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Back in the Game

Author: Christopher Keene

Dream State Saga, vol. 2

My rating: 4 of 5

Noah is gradually recovering from the car crash that killed his girlfriend and left him fighting for his life in the virtual reality world of the Dream State. But he’s got unfinished business with Wona, the creators of the game and the company responsible for orchestrating the crash to begin with. Somewhere in the Dream State is an item encoded with video evidence that could put Wona out of business, make them take responsibility for what they’ve done. To get this item, though, Noah must return to the game where he was previously trapped, reunite with his old team members, and race to find this item before someone else does . . . except, when he gets back to the Dream State, he finds that someone already has.

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Stuck in the Game, and I think that Back in the Game is a solid continuation of the story. The author does some really great stuff with the setting, focusing less on explaining the mechanics of the game (which you should already know from the first book) and more just letting the game setting affect the way things play out in the story. There are aspects of the story that just couldn’t work in any other setting, and there are also some really neat ideas and nuances that are developed here that I liked a lot–the way that leveling, items, and spells affect the battles or the wide variety of locations, for instance. That said, the type of story presented here is actually pretty different from that of the first book; Stuck in the Game is more of a survival story, whereas Back in the Game is much more revenge-focused. It works, and I enjoyed the plot, but I think I personally like the story-type of Stuck in the Game a bit better–but that’s just me. Also, not to give out too many spoilers, but I felt very personally betrayed by one character in the story . . . and I’m intrigued to see how that betrayal will end up playing out in future volumes. I did enjoy getting a variety of character perspectives throughout the book; they were balanced out quite well and provided some interesting insight into the various players. Overall  I think Back in the Game would be an enjoyable read for anyone interested in LitRPG stories, light novels, video games, or cyberpunk/fantasy/sci-fi stories in general.

NOTE: I received a free review copy of Back in the Game from the author in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this post.


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Stuck in the Game

Author: Christopher Keenestuck in the game

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Noah and his girlfriend Sue find themselves increasingly concerned and frustrated as they seem to be losing their friends to the new VR game Dream Engine. But when the two are involved in a terrible car crash, Dream Engine becomes Noah’s only link to reality and consciousness as the doctors in the real world work to help him heal. Noah finds himself trapped in an astonishingly realistic virtual reality world–complete with monsters that could kill him in-game and send him into a coma in real life.

I very much enjoyed reading Stuck in the Game. It appeals to the gamer in me, but also to my love of sci-fi and fantasy stories. I know the concept of being trapped in a VR game is not exactly original (think Sword Art Online), but I do think that Keene’s use of the idea was both creatively and interestingly executed. Also, the whole idea of using VR in medicine–cyberpunk, original, and thought-provoking from both a scientific and an ethical standpoint! The balance of game mechanics and descriptions against Noah’s very human plight works. I actually really enjoyed both the characters and the plot; both were quite engaging. I do have to note that this book would be . . . not necessarily inaccessible for non-gamers, but more challenging for them to get into perhaps. The writing style flows well and is easy to follow, however; the writing style has almost the feel of a good-quality light novel. I would definitely recommend Stuck in the Game, especially for gamers and those who love science fiction and fantasy adventures.

Note 1: I received a free review copy of Stuck in the Game from Future House Publishing in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this post.

Note 2: You can check out the author’s blog (including more information about this book) at fantasyandanime.wordpress.com.



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Accel World: The Red Storm Princess

Author: Reki Kawahara

Illustrator: HIMA

Accel World, vol. 2

Haruyuki has been a part of the accelerated world for several months now, serving under the legendary Black Lotus, Kuroyukihime. Initially, he improved rapidly, besting enemies with his avatar’s flying skills, but now he’s reached a plateau and can’t seem to win. . . . It’s pretty discouraging, especially when you really can’t regard the accelerated world as just a game. It’s kind of affecting Haruyuki’s mindset in the real too, even though otherwise his life is looking up–he’s friends (maybe more?) with Kuroyukihime, and the problems between him and his childhood friends Takumu and Chiyuri are pretty much resolved. Little could he know that his problems are just beginning when an adorable younger girl claiming to be his cousin crashes at his place for the night. . . . Is it possible that her presence is just a bit too suspicious?

As much as I enjoyed the first volume of Accel World, I think I liked The Red Storm Princess even better. I felt that it addressed and resolved some of the issues I had with Kuroyukihime’s Return. Notably, it seems more focused in real life. Sure, there are still huge sections that occur in the accelerated world–some very impressive and enjoyable fights, for instance. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the characters, Haruyuki and Kuroyukihime in particular, seem more content in the real world–not so much like they’re trying to bury themselves away in the video game. The introduction of Niko in this volume was fun; she’s an intriguing character, full of surprises. And of course, as mentioned before, there are some large-scale fights of the mind-blowing sort set in the video game–very intense. I also think the writing style has matured a bit from that of the first volume of this series; it’s always neat to see an author’s growth. I think The Red Storm Princess is an exciting and fun story, and I would definitely recommend it (just read Kuroyukihime’s Return first, or the whole Brain Burst thing won’t make much sense as not much time is spent in explanations in the second volume).

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Accel World: Kuroyukihime’s Return

Author: Reki Kawahara

Illustrator: Hima

Accel World, vol. 1

Haruyuki has, like basically all kids his age, spent nearly his entire life connected–to the global net, the school net, etc. He spends a good bit of time in full virtual reality dive too; being a skillful VR gamer is certainly an improvement over being a fat, unpopular kid who’s bullied at school then goes home to an empty house. One day–to the shock of the entire school, especially Haruyuki–Kuroyukihime, one of the most beautiful and popular girls in school, asks Haruyuki to share a direct link with her during lunch period. Which is basically tantamount to saying they’re dating. Not that they’ve actually even spoken before. Actually, Kuroyukihime has noticed Haruyuki’s extreme speed in VR games and introduces him to a special program called “Brain Burst”–a program that overclocks the brain and allows the user to think so fast that just a few seconds stretches into a half-hour reprieve. Also, it allows users to duel in highly-realistic game settings. This seems right up Haruyuki’s alley, but what does Kuroyukihime really want from him?

I was thrilled to find another light novel by the author of Sword Art Online, and I must say Kuroyukihime’s Return delivered, although in a slightly different flavor. I’m pretty sure Accel World: Kuroyukihime’s Return is Kawahara’s first light novel, but it’s remarkably developed and easy to read for all that. I think he does a great job depicting lonely middle-school kids who just want to be known and accepted as themselves. Haruyuki and Kuroyukihime are great foils for each other in that regard; they’re absolutely opposite ends of the social spectrum, yet each is lonely and misunderstood. Together, they find a certain resolution, unusual as it is. I found it interesting that these two are so wrapped up in “Brain Burst,” to the point that they sometimes act and think as though it were a matter of life and death. A part of me thinks “this is addictive, almost drug-like. Scary.” But then, for kids who feel trapped by life, an escape where you can give it your all and feel like you’re accomplishing something really might be worth more than a lot of “real life” stuff–especially if it’s an escape that you share with someone special to you. I think the blend of drama/romance with sci-fi/tournament/pseudo-mecha/gaming ideas is nicely done, but I do think the story is most accessible to those with some exposure to networking and gaming already. Kuroyukihime’s Return was definitely an enjoyable and refreshing read that I would recommend; I’m looking forward to a second volume!


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Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Author: Reki Kawahara

Illustrator: abec

The year is 2022, and the highly-anticipated virtual reality MMORPG, Sword Art Online, has just been released. Along with nearly ten thousand excited gamers, beta-tester Kirito logs in to the world of complete sensory immersion that the new VR software creates. He’s ready to have some fun slashing monsters, but it’s not long before he realizes something has gone horribly wrong. . . . There’s no log-out option. Worse yet, an announcement is soon made by the game creator that players will have to beat all 100 levels of the game before they can leave–and if they die in the game, they’ll die in real life too. Two years later, Kirito is one of a few thousand surviving players, an elite who has devoted himself to beating the game, avoiding too close an acquaintance with anyone else. Still, when another elite–the lovely and skillful Asuna–decides to pair up with him for a while, he might be convinced to make an exception.

Ever since the anime for Sword Art Online first came out in Japan, I’ve heard people saying how good it is. Having held out for an English translation of the light novel–the original form of the story–I’m blown away by how good it actually is. Rather, it is quite an exceptional story! The premise is quite simple–normal people being stuck in some game or fantasy and striving to fight their way back to normal life–but where Sword Art Online really shines is in the details of how the author deals with this premise. Kawahara goes to lengths to make the situation credible; from the details of the game to the practicalities of keeping the players trapped, every argument is deftly explained. Furthermore, the story delves deeply into the psychological effects of being in such a situation for such a long period of time–it’s a fascinating psychological study, truly. Of course, to me the most outstanding feature of the story is the characters, Asuna in particular. I’ve heard some people say she’s a strong character in the beginning but is weak towards the end–I strongly disagree. I think it’s amazing that so strong a character can show such a soft side and yet retain all the depth and strength of character that she does. That takes some impressive character writing. I think Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a light novel that will prove immersive and fascinating for almost any reader, even if you aren’t a gamer–it’s honestly that good.


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