Review by Curtis Cole
I feel that it is safe to say that the genre of the “LitRPG,” or ‘Role Playing Game literature’ is the modern incarnation of pulp fiction novels: cheap, plentiful, and meant to be consumed primarily by young men, they have the potential to be either wonderful romps of immature enjoyment or terrible, plodding experiences devoid of recommendable content.
Unfortunately, Shawn Kass’s first entry in his Town and Towers series A New Land falls into the previous category—insipidly.
Why? Good question. I would say it is insipid because, throughout the book, everything fails on all accounts; the dialog is stale: now, one can, at least, differentiate between the characters, but this is only because there is no character development and all of the actors remain cardboard cutouts of contrived geeky stereotypes. It is easy to tell a large battle-born barbarian from the meek healer. But, to cite other deficiencies: the story, a man being transported into a game-world, is not serviced in any notable fashion and so lacks unique traits to differentiate it from the horde of similarly minded texts; the narrative itself, meanwhile, remains uninspired and generic, never raising above simple side-quests and a unexciting tower; the game world, as one would expect, is also unexciting: generic small-town fantasy village with generic small town quests is suddenly thrust into the middle of a generic extraordinary occurrence—a large tower thrusting from the ground, to which generic adventures flock towards in order to conquer. Yawn. Oh, and the actual writing is both poorly formatted as well as lazy.
In short, A New Land is simply a bad read. Let me put it another way: if we were to imagine the fictional video game of Kass’s book becoming a reality, if it was actually developed by a team of competent developers, then, even if all of the features worked as they were imagined and the experience of questing and grinding was enjoyable enough alone or with buddies, then it would still only garner a seven out of ten rating. Story, plot, narrative—boring! I would not even give such a game a second glance if I saw it on the store shelves and that is the honest truth; but, and here is the thing, as a piece of literature concerning the magical transportation of someone from our reality into the game’s fiction, one expects a unique experience: one expects a deal of artistic perspective from someone who never before has swung a sword, but must nonetheless conquer the game. What a piece of literature offers that a video game does not is the ability to explore the psychological, existential, and even political ramifications of the juxtaposition between one reality (planet Earth under a late-capitalist period) and a fantasy realm designed under a late-capitalist epoch, a fantasy realm affected by postmodernist capital accumulation and sign fragmentation but ultimately still concerned with the fantastical phantasy of medieval narratological fibbery: a fantasy role-playing game set according to European history as interpreted by Japanese conceptions of role-playing.
Kass’s writing is fetid and not up to the task of excavating this project. Everything is bland, vanilla, and dry. The reason that it is dry is because Kass becomes trapped more in the text’s postmodern connotations than its actual sign-system; his characters speak not to the universe which he is crafting but to his adolescent audience. Why else have the protagonist and his girlfriend (heteronormativity) speak of dinner (TGI Fridays), popular Netflix and television shows, and the like? Kass’s text is the literary incarnation of that meme featuring the older man trying to fit into a group of kids: ‘hello fellow reading gamers, how do you enjoy your very real girlfriends and GoT episodes? Shall we enter ‘the Tower’ now and fight monsters until bed?” The author is fooling no one.
To be fair, Kass makes an attempt to rise above the postmodern origins of the ‘transportation’ sub-genre of his LitRPG work: once the protagonist is within the game world, Kass makes some valiant attempts to make it engaging. His rendition of various items and monsters stats as being engraved on the world themselves, usually somewhere out of sight which the game inhabitants would not notice, makes for an intriguing thought exercise on the nature of reality; additionally, the character of Marvin, the town greeter, was an amusing, if not somewhat Ableist, take a well-known JRPG trope. But the experience fizzled out from here with tedious micro-events and predictable outcomes.
I cannot recommend anyone reading this book. The best part of the protagonist’s lizard familiar; what does it say about a text when the most engaging, emotional, section of a book close to three-hundred pages, concerns a tiny creature as it struggles to get stronger? Not very much. Incidentally, that is all I can say about this text, that it is ‘not very much’ of really anything. If you absolutely must devour every LitRPG text out there and feel compelled to buy this trite cash grab, then, by all means, go ahead and throw away some hard-earned cash; but for everyone else, simply ignore this book and its inevitable sequels.
Towns and Towers: A New Land
Shawn Kass & Elizabeth Kass
289 pages. Published by Shawn Kass. $4.99 (Kindle). 2016.