My thanks to the author, David Gunter and BookTasters for a review copy of the book.
Darkness Stabs is the second part of the science-fiction/fantasy adventure Magical After which I had read some time earlier. The books (a four-book series, with each book in two parts) are set in Atsia Major and Atsia Minor which essentially are the world of an rpg game.
When the story began, we met our main character David Gosling who has been raising his three children, Peter, Jimmy and London on his own (and not too well) after the death of his wife Hellen a year previously. He is helped in this by his sister-in-law and brother-in-law. But David soon discovers that he himself is suffering a brain tumour and will have to undergo treatment. His wife’s company then offers him a chance to continue living (with the children) in an rpg game Hellen was instrumental in creating, while he undergoes treatment and recuperates in the real world. He of course accepts. But the CEO of the company Carl Mathews III, had in fact, wanted to get back at Hellen whom he felt had more control over his company than himself. And so he also sends in a gurkha, Tommy Cruise and a former soldier, John Taney to get rid of both David and Hellen, who lives on in her AI avatar in the game. In the previous book, we had been following David, Tommy and John as each of them landed in different parts of the world and soon found themselves fulfilling various tasks and challenges in the game. They have not all crossed paths so far, and in fact John and Tommy have pretty much been involved in their own challenges impacted also by their pasts.
As this part opens, we continue from the point that we left off as David had found some success using his real-life skills as a blacksmith. Soon he becomes an imperial blacksmith. While mostly due to Hellen’s influence, David had so far been having fairly positive luck and experiences in the game, he has managed to attract the ire of Starlight Girl, a goddess who has declared war on him. Also he seems to have become the target of some rather unwelcome dark magic. But as the game moves on, David begins to get stronger and learns to use equipment and skills as they are meant to be in the game. Along the way he also finds himself upgrade to a completely different (and unexpected status) with the help of the Blue Druid whom he had met in the previous book, and this equips him to face a dragon that declares war on their city (Opal City). In this the dragon is also acting in partnership with Starlight Girl. Meanwhile David also worries about his children with whom he has had next to no contact since entering the game.
In the previous segment, we had also met some professional and amateur gamers (including WhoDadi50 and RamenBoy) who were working with David to improve their points. In this book, we also follow some of their adventures and some other gamers and leagues who are introduced here.
Meanwhile, Tommy Cruise is on a quest of his own helping the two ‘undead’ girls, Sly and Slow, find their missing father but also tracking down a dark quest of which he has been told. He also has to cope with a soul-eating worm (a creature that seems to have been inspired by Tolkien’s Gollum, in its manner of speech at least) that has attached itself to him. Tommy too finds that his real world skills can help him adapt to the game world.
John Taney, the other soldier introduced in the first book is being trained as a Holy Knight. But he has some dark forces to track down and face, and he also seems to have a problem which we are not sure he himself knows about.
There are also some dark and unsettling goings on in which a suspicious set of ‘officers’/god characters led by the mysterious Whispers is causing some mischief in this world; and it seems the barriers between the game and the real world may not be as strong as we have been thinking.
This was another fun instalment in this set of books, and as in the last segment, I quite enjoyed reading it. The story as a whole and those of the individual characters we read of are interesting to follow along, and there are some surprises along the way. Also the interaction between the real and game worlds add to the interest in the story for it is not only that Carl III is attempting to cause trouble in the game, but it seems some in the game can reach back into the real world as well.
What I enjoyed most about the book was the fact that it really plays out like an rpg game with all the elements of one. Each of the characters we follow have character sheets and qualities that change with each step they take (xp, health points, soul points, powers, weapons, etc.). The author has devoted great attention to the details of these features, and they have turned out really well. Also of course the quests that each of the characters, and in some cases, guilds, take on are great fun to follow along; like in rpg games, when a creature is killed by another, the victor has the option to pick up the ‘loot’ while also improving their own xp, level and standing. And the creature killed doesn’t really die but has the option to ‘respawn’ in more than one way. The quests themselves are numerous and pretty creative. I also thought the dragon we meet and the dragon lore in the game were quite imaginative and enjoyable.
Other than the detestable Carl and some of the ‘darker’ characters like the Starlight Girl, one likes and feels sympathy for almost all of the others. Some on the other hand, we know have more to their stories, but I assume this will be revealed in future instalments.
While I enjoyed reading the book for the most part, some themes I felt didn’t belong and somehow took away from the general tone of the game/book. Also as in the case of the first book I felt that the writing in some places (not all through, but some segments, and particularly some of the dialogue) could do with a little more polishing as could some of the names given to the characters (the gamer names though, felt very authentic).
But I had fun with it as a whole.