“I sacrificed everything for my family. It wasn’t enough. I lost my mother, and now I’m about to lose my brother.
I’ve got only one thing left to gamble: my life. Which is why I’m willing to play Euphoria Online in Death March mode.
If I survive six months in-game against a lethal array of wyverns, ogres, necromancers, and more, I’ll earn my brother a pardon.
If I lose?
Well. I’m done with losing.”
This is the second book I have read by Phil Tucker, the first being the excellent The Path of Flames from his Chronicles of the Black Gate series. Recently LitRPG seems to have really blown up as a subgenre, so I was very intrigued to see what Tucker had to offer. As it turns out, Death March might be one of the most fun books I have read all year, sort of like the book equivalent of an addictive Netflix series – I binged the first book in an afternoon and immediately purchased the second, which I binged in its entirety the following day. As a huge fan of the MMOs of the late 90s/early 00s, this book felt tailored to please me. Set in a vast and evolving videogame world with an incredibly advanced AI, it’s a gamer’s dream.
Chris, our protagonist, is having a pretty shit time of it lately. He hasn’t yet come to terms with the death of his mother, and his manipulative ex (with whom he had a deeply unhealthy relationship) keeps trying to win him back. On top of this, thanks to a series of poor decisions, his little brother Justin is in prison. Chris has left his settled life in Seattle behind to help his brother and is struggling to earn enough at his teaching job to keep the lawyers paid, when the news comes that the government (now partly controlled by an AI known as Albertus) has decided to make an example of Justin. He faces execution.
Then out of the blue Chris is given a once in a lifetime opportunity by his ex, Brianna – to join the world of Euphoria Online, a highly advanced gaming world that he wouldn’t be able to afford on his own. Chris is rightly suspicious of Brianna’s motives, but she assures him that this isn’t about their relationship. There’s a lot of money to be made in Euphoria and Chris is a former pro gamer – his skills would be highly valuable to her. However, Chris has other ideas. One of the difficulty settings in the game, Death March, allows you to make a single request of the government, guaranteed to be granted (handy if you have a brother on death row) if you can last for 6 months of game time without dying. The downside? If you die in the game, you die in real life.
Everything about Euphoria is fascinating – its setup is similar to The Matrix in that Chris is in a full body suit and no longer conscious of the real world. All of his senses are hooked into the game world, and there’s a nice sense of being on the journey with him. The first hiccup comes when, on entering the world, he discovers things aren’t as they’re supposed to be. Brianna has told him to join the Cruel Winter guild and that she’ll join him there to help him level up quickly, but instead of finding a bustling guild hall filled with allies, he finds the place razed to the ground and deserted, the area brimming with high level enemies – Brianna herself is nowhere to be found. And things just go downhill from there.
Tucker has done an immense job of capturing the exhilaration of exploring a new game world, in everything from the character sheets to the dynamic creatures who have a surprising amount of personality. He also doesn’t shy away from asking some interesting questions about human nature – how would we behave in a videogame world in which the creatures are ultra realistic and imbued with their own independent thoughts and feelings? What choices would we make knowing that we could die for real? I found myself fascinated with the choices Chris made regarding his class abilities (logical given his situation) and his attitude to killing digital creatures (emotional, due to their extreme realism). One encounter with a group of Goblins really drove home that Chris has excellent instincts, and that even in a game world our choices define who we are. A person lacking in empathy is perhaps the greatest threat in a world like Euphoria.
The gaming elements of the world are very well thought out and simply presented – a non-gamer shouldn’t have any trouble following along, though I’m not sure how much they would get out of it comparatively speaking. That said, there are plenty of non-gaming elements to enjoy. The characters are excellent, and the supporting cast are hugely entertaining (this is especially true of the audiobook, in which Vikas Adam gives a sparkling performance), Barfo in particular was absolutely hilarious and had me in tears laughing a couple of times. The dialogue was great fun, each character received plenty of development, and there are tons of enjoyable references. Chris is a likeable protagonist you can really get behind, and the friends he makes on his journey are adorable. This was one of the most addictive reads I’ve had this year, and if you’re looking for something to get you out of a book slump or brighten up your day, I’d highly recommend it.
My only complaint is that book 3 isn’t out yet.
Score: 8.4/10 (5 Stars)
Bingo Squares 2018
- Reviewed on r/Fantasy
- Published 2018
- Fewer than 2500 GR Ratings