“Level Zero” is a coming of age Literary Role Playing Game (LitRPG) story which is the first book in the NextWorld series. The book is written by Jaron Lee Knuth and the audiobook is very well narrated by John Pirhalla. The author has quite a few books under his belt, however this one appears to be the only book currently available, at the time of this review, in audiobook format. I assume the author and narrator will be bringing the second book in the series (Spawn) to audio in the future. If you enjoy young adult (YA) coming of age stories that have science fiction and gaming elements with an interesting Blade Runner look and feel, I believe you will like Level Zero. Even though the book is the first in a series, I felt the story concluded quite well for the first in a series with the author giving us a view into what to expect in future books. That is to say, this book could be read as a stand-alone novel without any cliff hangers or other aspects requiring you to read the other books in the series; but I would be surprised if you did not want too. When binary numbers are used for the chapter titles, you know you are in for some computer gaming fun.
The main character is a fifteen-year-old who lost one of his parents and is estranged from the other; who is a highly politically involved individual. Our main character has a single friend in the world and they both enjoy putting all their time in to playing virtual reality games for escape. Although it sounds similar to all the other dystopian coming of age books in the genre, the author is able to set his story apart by creating a rather unique and different world from the others. In this story, the world outside of their living space is crumbling and becoming toxic. However, the space outside is filled with cable and wires providing feeds for the ever-present virtual world; think of it as the Internet times ten. A person is given a small physical living space for storage, sleeping and eating. Each room also comes with a pod allowing a person to jack into the virtual world. Food, Vitapaste, is provided in a protein paste format used to sustain everyone; yummy. It is a rather grim and dirty world, and that is why so many want to escape to the ever-growing virtual world.
Everything from meeting up with your friends, education, work, and even religion occurs in the virtual world. The pods are programmed to terminate your virtual connection when food or sleep are required as a safety precaution. The world has a very socialistic feel with the government running, providing and overseeing nearly everything. When a new beta world is available to only a select few, our characters jump at being given the opportunity to join. Once in the new game, things go from bad to worse as they become trapped with their only escape being to win the game. This newly created world is exactly what one would expect from your standard fantasy RPG. There are warriors, rogues, magic users, etc. Everyone needs to also trust and depend on the others in their party to survive. However, the author did a good job of crafting some new and unique weapons and upgrade options. It helped give the book a different angle than so many others in the genre. Think fantasy world blended with a few of the amenities of the modern world.
Let me turn to the book’s characters. I felt the characters were overall well rounded and had good interaction with one another. I would have liked to have had some additional background on a few of the characters joining the party to help me better understand their actions. Each of the major characters had some issues that needed to be resolved as well as trust needing to be built for the party to succeed at their task. What complicates things even more is that the new beta program locks our unsuspected group in the virtual world where they will starve if they are unable to escape. The security protocols have all been compromised and our characters must win or parish due to starvation. This is where the main arc of the story picks up as they try all they can to escape the program and save their lives. The book focuses mainly on friendships with light romantic elements included. If I could change one thing, it would be the continued use of the word “Yo” by one of the party characters.
The books narration was done very well and I enjoy John Pirhalla voice. I have listened to a few other books by this narrator including the Origin of F.O.R.C.E. series by Sam B. Miller II which I enjoyed quite a bit. His voice is mellow and pleasant to listen too, yet he is able to also keep things exciting during scenes of intense action. John was able to bring life and distinction to each of the main characters by giving them unique personalities and accents. He even included a few audio extras that make the book come alive in audio format. I do not recall any issues with the audio itself, only a professionally produced audiobook.
I have to give the author credit as I do not remember any use of vulgar language in the book, nor any over sexualized sections. The book’s is designed to be read by younger audiences except from a few rather graphic scenes of violence. The book also does not fully address the tension between parent and child, as with most Disney stories, but I was happy to see that this book can be read by younger audiences; who I think will enjoy it quite a bit.
In summary, if you like book in the LitRPG genre and you are wanting something a little bit different or unique, I would recommend you pick up Level Zero and give it a try. Most books in this genre often contain vulgar language or adult subject matter, where this book does not. It is a fun, interesting, yet rather dark view into the future of virtual reality. And remember, make sure to brush your teeth after eat your Vitapaste before going to bed tonight!
Disclaimer: I was voluntarily provided this review copy audiobook at no charge by the author, publisher and/or narrator.