Shadows in the Flames (A Review)

Review by Curtis Cole

                Brent Roth returns to the writing milieu with the third entry in The Dragon’s Wrath, a massive novel following the exploits of protagonist gamer-extraordinaire Brent and his obsession with the virtual reality MMORPG The Dragon’s Wrath. (The parallels between the book as it actually exists and the novel’s contents, unfortunately, do not end here.) Is it any good, is it terrible? Let’s find out!

But before we do find out the usual caveat: as in the previous volume, installment number three, Shadows in the Flame, is a volume, so it is merely a piece of a larger narrative. It is not a novel in itself but rather a piece of a novel. Because of this, Shadows in the Flame picks up right after the conclusion of the second with no synopsis or ‘previous on’ to help new readers. As I wrote my review of volume two, I find this to be a fine endeavor, though perhaps not to all readers.

So, that being said, the content—is it worth reading? Overall, I would say yes, it is worth reading.

The bottom line is this: if you enjoyed volumes one and two, and still hanker for more content from Roth’s universe, then you will enjoy this volume. Writing wise, it sticks closely to the second volume; the action has gotten going well which enables the narrative to inch its way further out of the malaise which volume one and part of two was mired. With something resembling a plot now swinging, the reader will be able to appreciate the fruits of the protagonist advancing within the novel’s game world.

But, not all is well. Though the action is well written and the protagonist has discernable goals within the game, the actual plot, though taking shape, is still about as solid as smoke tendrils. Bluntly spoken, almost nothing concrete happens. We see the aftermath of a reprisal raid, that raid’s fallout, and the protagonist’s journey to the game’s ‘Central Kingdoms’ in order to participate in a ‘Call to Arms’ in hopes of finding out some information on the enemy who is suspected of being the mastermind behind the raid against him, but other than that, nothing truly propels the protagonist. There is not a centralized problem to solve, not an overall goal to achieve. While in traditional science fiction novels the inclusion of an invading empire or alien horde provides a rallying point for something to occur, this is not the case with Shadows in the Flame.

At the end of the day, the narrative is still merely random events. ‘This’ happens, then ‘that’ forces this new ‘thing’ to transpire, which takes you back to ‘this’… as a reader, you begin to feel as though Roth is less telling a story and more exquisitely describing a side-quest. All though this could be chalked up to the nature of MMORPGs as being time drains without a discernable purpose once a certain threshold has been reached. Since we are talking about a narrative, one that includes a human character playing a game as part of escapism, and said protagonist attempting to end the harassing of a shadowy and mysterious antagonist, you figure there would be more effort to flesh out this aspect of the novel. Unfortunately, there is no such effort.

Unfortunately, the plot remains mostly stagnant with but two or three minor points adding any substance to the protagonist’s direction, goal, and desire. We glean a few small insights into his real world life, as a collector of classic vehicles he restores himself, and his accompanying money troubles; we learn that he is running low on funds and that, soon, he will not be able to continue playing the game. We are given some insight into his psychological condition and how playing the game is likely deteriorating his health (alongside this suspicion, there is strong connotations that the game he is obsessed with may, in fact, be more than a simple game, as demonstrated by the unusual behavior of an A.I. and the repeated references to ‘this is all just a game’ and ‘they,’ the game’s non-playable characters, ‘just being code’ while brutally violent acts take place); other than that, however, no other details are given of the protagonist’s real-world existence, so the issue comes down to balancing problems[1]. Finally, we are informed that the rationale behind the raid on the protagonist’s settlement is likely masterminded by a fellow core play tester. Beyond that, however, not much else is said or done, and so the plot suffers.

While some may be able to overlook such as issue as minor, I feel that more should have been done at this point. Though hardly a devastating ‘bug,’ to appropriate a term from game developing, and less of an issue than the forthcoming complaint, I feel that such plot lack should be mentioned since we are three volumes in. But, as I said, there is another issue to discuss and that is the problem connected to the actual writing, the problem of perspective.

Simply said, the perspective problem is this: the narrative is told in first-person but will occasionally switch to a different character’s first person perspective without informing you of who is the new speaker. Should the characters have easily identifiable personalities, this would not be a concern, but since the characters, though unique, lack enough defining traits to easily tell them apart, and the whole of the narrative’s atmosphere remains the same no matter who is experiencing the game’s world, expect to have a few instances of suddenly being thrust in what feels like a whole new story as you attempt to guess who is doing what[2].

Together, neither of these issues break the experience, but they certainly do not help it either. In sum, Roth’s third installment is well written; as a piece of a grand narrative, it succeeds in giving an emotional representation when the narrative needs it. It also raises some interesting questions about morality and the existential condition. But most of all, it is not a lazy affair; battles, encounters, and the logic behind the snail pace is solid and comes together in a satisfying manner. Nothing feels forced (this is a strong point of the slow narrative, that much which comes off as dues ex Machina in other novels, feels appropriate, for the most part, here). The settlement of scenarios is complex and refuses to take the easy way out (something which cannot be said of all science fiction literature, as is gained from a cursory look at Pierce Brown’s Morning Star. So, yes, this piece of literature has strengths and, like all pieces, weaknesses. So while I would have enjoyed seeing more in the way of actual plot, I also understand why Roth is taking the slow route, for both philosophical and narrative reasons, because not only does it match the nature of the game genre being explored—MMORPGs—but also because anything worth reading takes a while to write, and sometimes that writing takes a while to understand. Should volume four continue this trend of plot voiding then I will take a serious issue, but as it stands, the Roth fan will be pleased to know that Shadows in the Flame is the best volume yet.

The Dragon’s Wrath: Shadows in the Flame

Brent Roth

408 pages[3]. Published by Brent Roth. $3.99 (Kindle). 2015.

 

[1] This is somewhat ironic since, in video games, especially MMORPGs, the hardest hurdle for developers is finding a balance between all of the game’s mechanics. So, it is to be taken a bit back by how this same problem resurfaces in this sub-genre of literature as balancing problems between adding meaningful real-world segment and advancing the in-game scenario.

[2] To be fair, the author does, at the very beginning of the volume, explain a narrative shift and its indicators, but the issue is that since they occur only a few times in the volume, you will, like me, likely forget about the markers and scratch your head a bit as the narration shifts; an unfortunate issue—a problem transpires just enough to annoy people but not enough to become a major headache.

[3] Page estimates were taken from Amazom.com

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