When I saw the cover of Tracy Gregory’s Aetherknight I expected the more grisly kind of litRPG a, Darksouls meets SAO kind of thing. While properties of the world do give off that desperate hang-on-for-your-life-by-your-fingernails vibe, the tone feels rather light. This isn’t a bad thing, Gregory’s voice seems suited to it.
The dual protagonists, Alex and Casey, are gamers (un)lucky enough to be among the first to test a totally not-evil money-hungry Facebook analog’s immersive VRMMO, only to find themselves stuck. A typical setup that’s blessedly quick in its delivery, the number of litRPGs that take ages to detail tech that’s ultimately irrelevant beyond the page it’s mentioned is distressing. Even better, Aetherknight hints that the mechanics behind its inciting gimmick may be an integral part of the plot rather than an isekai ticket alone.
Our protagonists are thrown into a techno-fantasy setting that smacks strongly of Monster Hunter. Android creatures that mimic amalgamations of the world’s most nasty critters roam the aether lands.
Oh, and the fauna in question? They’re all made of bits ranging from sleek claws to industrial drills; everything has a neon glow wherever it makes sense, including their blood. It’s almost like the monsters ate an entire chain of disco surplus stores after helping themselves to the people. Fabulous. And a very embarrassing way to die.
Though their parts can be harvested to craft tech that’s as powerful as it is essential to keep the wheels of civilization turning, the effort is likely to get enterprising knights eaten or mauled. Or to put on a more pleasant air like a certain secretary, new knights have a high turnover rate.
Still, the cast navigates the aether lands with a genuinely amusing amount of pluck. The only complaint on this end worth writing is that I wanted to see more of them. I’m talking density as well as depth here. The number of named characters is rather small and the moments where aspects of their personalities shine don’t feel insubstantial, just… thin.
Aetherknight is a fully packaged experience, but only just. We’re given some choice details regarding the character’s backgrounds like Casey’s financial situation and hints at the mentor figure, Simian’s, motivations behind becoming a connoisseur of “salvage”, but I was left asking for more depth. More on Alex’s part especially. I’m aware that this is only the first installment, but I’d appreciate more narrative weight spent on connecting the main characters to the world to make their exploration of it more impactful.
Regarding that, the middle section perhaps pulls too strongly from Monster Hunter and represents an issue found in several litRPGs. Some segments feel like part of a grinding session pushed through the text, while others spend too much time conceptualizing stats. Though far from the worst offender, Aetherknight displays aspects of legitimate games that don’t translate well to the written medium. Unless I’m on the sticks, I don’t want to consider heat and cold resistance too far past the point of establishment.
To make the minutiae of gameplay entertaining you need to apply copious amounts of cool or a unique voice. This isn’t always present, so Aetherknight drags a bit. It didn’t make me give up on the story though, as I’ve said, worse examples can be found everywhere.
As for the nitty-gritty details of the text: for an indie novel, it’s perfectly serviceable.
The voice isn’t boring, but it doesn’t enchant. Safe is the best way I’d describe it. It doesn’t go too far into literary or evocative language but doesn’t leave us in a blank white plane. There are bits of fun wordplay but it’s mostly found in the dialogue. Gregory could take a few more risks in the narrative itself to make the scenes pop. This is a matter of style, though.
Mechanical errors are minimal; nothing ever garbles the imagery or necessitates a second reading of a paragraph. The largest issue lies in filter words (a lot of “had” that can be deleted wholesale) and some overwriting during action sequences. The latter is at its most stark in the opening scene, but all it needs is a good polishing to make it flow.
Aetherknight lacks a strong theme, but that means less and less in the face of a story featuring fun characters doing fun things. Authors don’t have to be on an eternal quest to reveal something about the human condition to produce notable works. Anyone who tells you differently is an elitist that needs their mouth shoved full of pink bookmarks
In sum, I like Aetherknight. I like its characters, I like the world. I’m fairly confident in Gregory’s ability to make me love them in future installments.
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