“Awaken Online Catharsis” is the first of two books in the Awaken Online series written by Travis Bagwell. The audiobook edition is richly narrated by David Stifel who has voiced books in nearly every genre provided on Audible at the time of this review. The book is best classified in the Literary Role-Playing Game (LitRPG) subgenre. It is a rather large book compared to others in its class coming in at 526 pages for the Kindle edition and over sixteen hours for the audiobook version. So, what sets this book apart in a rather crowded space? With a plethora of books about heroes conquering the evils of the land, this book reverses that perception and instead tells the story mostly from evils point of view. Think of what “Lord of the Rings” would have been like if told from the perspective of the side of Mordor. If you are a gamer, enjoy fantasy, like coming of age stories, and enjoy playing a more chaotic focused character, I think you will enjoy the story Bagwell tells in this book. Be aware that the book can be quite graphic and rather dark at times, so I would not recommend it to very young readers.
I found it interesting looking up the word “catharsis”, it relates to: purification, cleansing, purging, or liberation. Each of these words are dealt with in this book. In short, the book is a coming of age story where the main character becomes a hero, an evil hero that is, within a virtual MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) created by a rather shady corporation. This company may have lost control over the game’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) system and must hide this fact from the authorities. All of this begins unraveling while the main character’s physical life is also in shambles with school, parents, and friends. His one true escape is in this newly created virtual world called Awaken Online or AO. The book takes place in the near future and is mostly written for the Young Adult (YA) audience. I say this because most of the adults in the book are stereotypical of ones found in Disney movies. Often idiots, seeking the child’s forgiveness, and ignorant to the events occurring. Adult characters are not frequently seen throughout the book. This aspect does not ruin the book, but I’m sure you will notice it by the end. When I was done listening to the book, it made me think of the “Breakfast Club” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” movies set in a MMORPG.
As one would expect from a fantasy book setting, there are many of the standard tropes such as zombies, undead, skeletons, plenty of magic, weapons, crafting, drunk and bumbling guards, different types of magic, heroes, demi-gods, etc. These and many more are found within the pages of this story. Not only do you have such fantasy items, but you also have the inclusion of technology such as AI, corporations struggling to maintain their dominance and monetize their success. There were many message and dialogue boxes cluttering the screens for those who have previously played such types of games. I often found that when a new item was discovered, I could visualize the system providing me the details as they were read along with the extra audio beep letting me know it was a system message. I did laugh out loud as the author described the dreaded “Fog of War” often found on adventure game maps, I always was the one to have to clear every bit of it before finishing the game. The book brought back so many vivid game playing experiences for me. I also thought the author’s ability to describe a scene was quite good. I never felt lost for the events or scenery while listening. What worked less for me were the many times our main character had inner dialogue. As critical decisions needed to be made, we as the audience were able to listen in on his inner conversation. This is more a personal preference than an issue with the writing style.
The book’s narration was performed by David Stifel, who I’m happy to say also narrates the second book in the series. It is always good to have consistency in an audiobook series. I liked the narrator’s deep and rich voice which added some to the dark and ominous feel to the story. For a book of its size, there were only a few slight issues, but nothing that would prevent someone from listening and enjoying it fully. I came to like the added audio sound effects used when a new item was discovered or some other system event occurred. Often these minor subtle additions can make a story all that more interesting as long as they are not overused or take away from the story itself. The sound quality was on par with other professionally done audiobooks I have listened too. The only minor thing I will point out is that there were a few slightly noticeable volume inconsistencies; again, these can be expected for a book of its length and they were hardly noticeable.
For parents or younger readers, this book is rather dark at times and does contain some brutal and graphic violence found in many other fantasy books. The book also contains a fair amount of vulgar language usage. This surprised me for a fantasy series, however I believe the author was trying to write more toward the YA crowd then younger readers. The book also has a few references to sexual and/or crude humor. There are topics or subject matter that would not be appropriate for younger readers, and I would suggest this age group find a different book to read. Or, if you are easily offended by anything mentioned above, this book is not for you.
In summary, I overall enjoyed the book as I thought it added a few things not seen in other LitRPG books. The writing was not overly complex or deep, the focus on telling the story from the evil perspective was rather unique, and it fills one’s desire for a solidly written and narrated LitRPG book. The book has received a number of acclaimed reviews, so it seems like it has been well received. If it sounds interesting, I recommend you give it a listen.
Disclaimer: I was voluntarily provided this review copy audiobook at no charge by the author, publisher and/or narrator.