Tuesday, December 04, 2007

It's a Runescape Kind of World

EPIC by Conor Kostick
4Q 5P J/M

The teens here are Runescape fanatics. Battleon used to be really popular too. I've been known to play both. When I was younger, I loved the Zork games (boy, does that date me!) and any other adventure game that centered around solving puzzles (as opposed to the ones that feature endless battles). There's something about these games that's addicting and exciting. But what if you had to play? And what if everything you did in the game affected your real life? If you are a sixtieth level warrior with +20 magical weapons and armor, you're golden. In the real world, you'd have enough points to have a pretty good life. But what if you meet a stronger foe with better weapons and more magic? Well, then you die and wind up back as a level one character with maybe a rusty dagger and a leather arm guard to protect you as you scramble to kill anything weaker than you are just to gain a paltry coin or two. Now real life's not nearly such a picnic, because you've lost all your assets there, too. Welcome to Erik's world.

In Erik's world, everything depends on how well you play the virtual reality game called Epic. As the book begins, Erik is supposed to be preparing for what seems to be the equivalent of his final exams. But that doesn't mean cracking the books. It means he has to get online and play Epic to hone his skills and improve his stats. That may sound like fun to us, but to Erik, it's no fun at all, particularly because he knows it's an exercise in frustration. The game is stacked against them. Erik, his mother, and his father are, like everyone else in their village, struggling to meet their quotas and fill their duties in the real world. But in order to do that, they need things they can only get by winning in Epic. And that just isn't going to happen. In fact, it's so impossible that they're about to be reallocated and sent to work in the mines. So instead of preparing for the graduation tournament, Erik is trying to find a way to challenge Central Allocations, the governing body that decides who gets what. A successful challenge is the only way the family will be able to stay where they are. Unfortunately, his characters keep dying.

This last death is the final straw. He has to play, yes. But he's through with playing the game by the rules; he's through with playing strategically. His new character will be different from anything he's ever created before. For one thing, she'll be female. And instead of maximizing all the typical skills, such as fighting or crafts, and instead of trying to get as much magic and the best weapons he can afford, in a moment of whimsy he decides to throw all his attribute points into his character's physical features. She's beautiful. In a game where all the players are gray, angular blobs, Cindella the swashbuckler is going to really stand out.

Stand out she does. The very first time Erik plays Epic as Cindella, he realizes that everything has changed. For the first time ever, the NPCs (the characters controlled by the game, not other players) interact meaningfully with him. In fact, sometimes they even initiate conversations, which is unheard of. But what they tell him is even more amazing. It seems that there's a treasure to be found. If Cindella can find the treasure, she'll be rich. And if she's rich, then Erik is, too.

Erik soon realizes that this is the character that just might survive long enough to be able to mount that challenge against Central Allocations. But if Cindella wants to find that treasure, she's going to need some help. And Erik is going to need help, too. Fortunately, Erik has four very good friends in Bjorn, Injeborg, Big Erik, and Sigrid. Together, they make a formidable team, becoming famous throughout Epic and in the real world. But are they good enough and strong enough to beat Central Allocations, the most powerful people/players in both worlds? They had better be, because Central Allocations doesn't like its power threatened, and the council members are prepared to take whatever steps necessary to make sure that Erik and his friends are put in their proper place. In a world where even the merest hint of violence is outlawed, all disputes are supposed to be solved inside the game of Epic and only through tournament combat. But certain members of Central Allocations think rules are for other people. Erik might not know it yet, but his life is in danger, and not just in the game.

Epic has all the elements of a great role-playing game adventure: a quest, villains, vampires, ogres, trolls, a truly fearsome dragon, treachery, magic, and ::ahem:: epic battles. Some characters turn out to have secrets that have a huge impact in the way the story (book and Epic) turn out. In a sense, this is two treats in one. It's a great read, and at the same time, there are sections when it manages to make you feel as though you truly are participating in the virtual reality world.

I highly recommend this book to teens who like action and adventure. Even kids who are more interested in playing on their computers than in reading will enjoy this one. And when teachers assign their students to read a science fiction novel, this will be one of my first suggestions to the kids who hate science fiction. I think they'll be pleasantly surprised.

The author is planning to write at least one sequel/companion novel to Epic. In fact, I see that it's already been published in the United Kingdom and Germany. I'm glad to see that it doesn't seem to be precisely a sequel, because I don't really think it needs one. (But it does seem as though at least 80% of J/YA fantasies and a significant percentage of J/YA science fiction come with "sequel" or "trilogy" written into the contract!). But sequel, companion novel, or stand-alone novel, I will be buying it for my library.

No quotes this time, because it's not a book that particularly lends itself to that. But here are a few links that might be worth checking out:

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