Written by Vasily Mahanenko
Narrated by Jonathan Yen
Barliona: a virtual world jam-packed with monsters, battles – and, predictably, players. Millions of them come to Barliona, looking forward to the things they can’t get in real life: elves and magic, dragons and princesses, and unforgettable combat. The game has become so popular that players now choose to spend months online without returning home. In Barliona, anything goes: You can assault fellow players, level up, become a mythical hero, a wizard, or a legendary thief. The only rule that attempted to regulate the game demanded that no player be allowed to feel actual pain. But there’s an exception to every rule. For a certain bunch of players, Barliona has become their personal hell. They are criminals sent to Barliona to serve their time. They aren’t in it for the dragons’ gold or the abundant loot. All they want is to survive the virtual inferno. They face the ultimate survival quest..
A few weeks ago, I found a blog about books while surfing. One of the entries mentioned a ‘new genre’ of books called “LitRPG.” Essentially, LitRPGs take you through the experience of a role playing game (MMORPG in this case), first hand. While some fantasy books attempt to tell stories within the lands created by game writers, LitRPGs actually take you through the game… by putting you directly in the mind of one of the gamers. The protagonist shares with you the rules of the game, the crunch under the hood, the monotony of grinding and the ecstasy of leveling up.
I thought, at first, that the incessant ‘system messages’ and crunch might make the book a bit too boring. And, for some readers, it probably is. However, for those of us who have spent dozens of hours reading boards and hint books to learn how to best level up characters in video games, we can find a lot to like here. The main character, stuck in this virtual world, may be a bit boring and two dimensional. However, the world around the character really stands out. After all, with a video game as the setting, anything can and will happen. While a typical fantasy novel is constrained by the need to have some basis in logic, natural order of things, etc., (with magic providing some exception to that), the world of Barliona is constrained only by video game/MMO logic and rules. This allows the author a lot of freedom in exploring fantastical possibilities even while utilizing a somewhat boring main character and typical MMO quest lines. While the first book sets the stage, the 2nd book really explores these possibilities more fantastically.
Normally, this book by itself would get a 4/5 from me. However, three things elevate this book to the coveted 5/5 stars. First, while I’m only about half way or so through the second book, it is clear that the author saved some of his more imaginative twists and turns for future books. Second, this approach to fantasy story telling feels fresh. Originality always wins brownie points from me! Finally, my wife gives it two thumbs WAY up. She enjoyed this book so much, she has torn through the rest of the books available in this series. She simply cannot stop listening. While the writing is great, the reader definitely carries his end and does a great job using voices effectively to tell the story.
I can highly recommend this book series to any of my friends who enjoy computer and console RPGs.