This week, we take a look at Ascend Online, by Luke Chmilenko, Hallowed Bones, by Jonathan Smidt, and A Thousand Li: the Second Expedition, by Tao Wong.
Entertainment. In a world where basic needs are met, it is the final frontier for most people. So, when a new immersive game, Ascend Online, opens, Marcus and his friends log in to a new world that offers more challenges than their everyday lives. Such as Marcus being forcibly separated from his friends and sent to a town in the middle of goblin and spider invasions. Survival not only means leveling up, but building the town to withstand monster attacks–and marauding players–long enough for his friends to arrive.
Working in the same vein as Small Unit Tactics, Log Horizon, and Viridian Gate Online, Ascend Online is yet another of the guild management and progression fantasies that embody the main tropes of litRPG. And, to be quite fair, it almost comes close to being the sterling example of its genre, in the way that Bone Dungeon is for the dungeon builder novel.
Almost. The plot meanders compares to the more focused litRPGs, but where many indulge heavily in the minutia of leveling and crafting, Ascend Online tends to linger on its action scenes. Combat is frequent and blow-by-blow, padding the novel’s length to a door-stopping 650 pages. Less would be more for this formula-codifying novel, which otherwise balances likeability, characterization, exploration, and guild politics so well–and with far more grace than its copycats. But in its current state, Ascend Online is not quite the perfect introduction to the MMO-driven tales of litRPG. It’s merely close.
In the wake of the demon invasion, dungeons are being exterminated by human armies. And Ryan, as the core to the Bone Dungeon, is on the list. Only by growing to the Diamond Level in strength will he become powerful enough to survive and save those who have come to depend on him. But the forces behind the demonic invasion are not yet done with the Bone Dungeon, or the world. And the resulting clash might challenge even the gods.
Hallowed Bones takes the biggest risk for a popular indie series: it brings the story of Ryan and the Bone Dungeon to a proper, satisfying, and self-contained conclusion. And at a time when popular series continue to spiral into double-digits’ worth of novels, a mere trilogy might be seen as leaving money on the table. But Hallowed Bones manages to do what most dungeon builders have yet to. Sure, some writers might be more novel in their progressions and creations, but none save Jonathan Smidt have been able to meld progression fantasy with heroic fantasy, successfully bridging the gap between the immediate surroundings of dungeon builders with the far shores of heroic and epic fantasy. The dad humor puns return in triplicate for Ryan’s send-off, so be ready for a groan or two. But for those who like their fantasy akin to the Golden Age of Mystery and its puzzles, Hallowed Bones caps an adventure that showcases the best of the dungeon builder genre.
Wu Ying’s successes and growth in The First War have helped propel him up the ranks of the Verdant Green Waters Sect. But as he continues down the path of chi cultivation, news arrives that his instructor, Master Cheng, has been poisoned, and is suffering from a rare poison used only by an exterminated dark sect. Wu Ying helps lead the expedition to find the exotic antidote ingredients, but soon finds himself in the crosshairs of rival sects and the poisoners.
With The Second Expedition, the Thousand Li series continues to be the most approachable Western introduction to Chinese xianxia cultivation fantasy. But now it begins to shift from the familiar to the more exotic as it explores the wider cultural world beyond the sect’s compound. The Second Expedition still retains the grounding in the concrete world, which helps explain the more abstract methods behind chi, power cultivation, and the Eastern internal arts. Subtle criticism about the selfishness of xianxia cultivators compared to wuxia heroes leavens the rivalries, progression, tournaments, and intrigues, but never grows into preachiness. Greater challenges await for Wu Ying as he ascends to the summits of cultivation and enlightenment, but his adventures never reek of power fantasy.