Saga, by Conor Kostick

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Publication date – June 11, 2009

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The breathtaking sequel to the multistarred Epic! Ghost is part of a street hacker airboard gang who lives to break rules. When they realize that their world—Saga—is being periodically invaded by strange human beings, they don’t know what to do. That is, until they learn the complicated truth: Saga is not just their world. It is a sentient computer game, the replacement to Epic on New Earth, and it’s addictive. The Dark Queen who controls Saga is trying to enslave both its people and the people of New Earth. And she’ll succeed unless Ghost and her friends—and Erik, from Epic, and his friends—figure out what to do.

Thoughts: After rereading the first book of the series, Epic to prepare myself for Saga, I still was unprepared for the dramatic shift in tone and setting between the two different novels. Where Epic took place primarily in a fantasy MMORPG crossed with a developing hardscrabble world, Saga takes place in a cyberpunk game that blurs the boundaries between real and virtual, and explores the concepts of artificial intelligence and self-awareness.

Not a bad idea, but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting after Epic.

Within the gameworld of Saga, inhabitants are unaware that their world was created as a game for humans. There are a few who are aware of this fact, but most go about their lives believing that their world is the only world. Until they meet players from the outside, the same players who used to make use of Epic, as Saga has been forcibly put on all of New Earth’s computers after the deletion of Epic at the end of the previous book. The result is a mental expansion for all involved, as the players realize that the NPCs of Saga are as developed and diverse as they themselves are, and the NPCs come to grips with the origin of their existence and what it means to be self-aware in a programmed world.

Definitely interesting concepts to tackle, and I have no problem with how it was done. Fascinating philosophical concepts, and it was interesting to see how they were handled.

But I don’t think it was done particularly well within the context of the story. Erik and BE and a couple of other characters from New Earth make cameos, and Erik – still playing Cindella, due to the fact that when Saga took over her old character file was unable to be deleted – is the catalyst for major change in the world, but for the most part, the world and people of New Earth are relatively unimportant to the tale and the more interesting parts of the story’s concept. Sadly, this doesn’t come across very well, as it’s established that Saga’s ruler has planted addicted in the minds of millions of New Earth players, as a bargaining chip for getting parts of Saga reprogrammed to her satisfaction. A major even like that shouldn’t have come across like the afterthought that it felt like, especially when it was the motivation for Erik to start an overthrow of Saga’s government. Cindella played a big role without playing a big role, if you follow, and it didn’t make for the best reading. I was far more interested in Ghost and her gang within the virtual world, and happily more than half the story was devoted to them, but for all they did and for all the important events that revolved around them, it felt like the author was still trying to get the story to ride on Cindella’s shoulders.

It didn’t work out that way. Often, it felt as though Kostick threw Erik and BE in the story simply for a way to connect to the previous novel, to ride on its successes instead of having Saga work as a standalone novel. In my opinion, it would have worked far better as a standalone, and things would have worked far more smoothly that way. It could be notable as a standalone. Here it’s just an okay follow-up.

I’m hoping that this was just a case of Second Book Syndrome, an aberration, so that the third book will be far more entertaining and make more sense in context. I will read it, but I can’t help but feel really let down after this one, which has made me feel like I need a real break from the trilogy before I take on the final book.

Epic, by Conor Kostick

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Author’s blog
Publication date – May 20, 2008

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Welcome to a society governed through computer games!

On New Earth, society is governed and conflicts are resolved in the arena of a fantasy computer game, Epic. If you win, you have the chance to fulfill your dreams; if you lose, your life both in and out of the game is worth nothing. When teenage Erik dares to subvert the rules of Epic, he and his friends must face the Committee. If Erik and his friends win, they may have the key to destroying the Committee’s tyranny. But if they lose…

Thoughts: Combine .hack with a dystopia and you have what Kostick is setting up here. Violence is outlawed and punishable by exile, and everything is settled through interactions in an MMORPG, including legal disputes, appeals for more equipment for farms, lifesaving surgeries. Which means that those who have more time to play the game and gather more money and equipment get preferential treatment, and those who actually have to labour in the real world get shafted.

So when Erik gets sick of the system and starts over with a new character, he does things differently. He puts all his starting points into appearance and none into battle skills, and starts interacting with NPCs and engaging in randon quests instead of participating in the endless grind of fighting for pennies. And what comes of it is a quest that could change the world, unmake the fantasy world of Epic, and bring down the foundation upon which Erik’s entire society is built.

But the game doesn’t plan to go down so easily. Epic is a world that hasn’t even been fully explored, let alone understood, and over the years it has evolved a consciousness, and will to live, and an eventual understanding that player characters are not like the NPC denizens that inhabit it.

The real shades of .hack start coming to play when the game, or at least the part of it that wants to live and is being expressed, ironically, through a powerful vampire NPC, learns that it can kill the player by killing the character. The conscious game, the living entity within the code, the idea that a game can kill from within, none of these ideas are new, but it put me in the mind of .hack mostly, I think, because of the fantasy setting of the world of Epic itself. Everything combined to create a setting that felt familiar and comfortable to me because I saw in it something I’d seen and enjoyed elsewhere.

On a whole, Epic was not a perfect novel, but it was very enjoyable and made me want to throw the world aside and spend a few hours in a MMORPG again. It brought back a bit of the old gamer in me that hasn’t been seen for a little while, and for that, I can thank it and the author for that bit of inspiration.

Epic is the first book in a trilogy, and I think, all things considered, that I’m going to have to track down the sequels. The book ended at a point that makes me incredibly curious as to how things continue, and I can’t let this one lie.

Recommended to gamers and fans of gamer fiction. And maybe I’ll see you around Ragnarok or playing SMT:Online someday!