“Challenge” is the first book in the “Unbound Deathlord” series. The book is authored by Edward Castle and the audiobook’s narration is expertly performed by, as usual, Jeff Hays. In the very crowded Literary Role Playing Game (LitRPG) genre, this book sets itself apart by approaching the story from the perspective of a more evil or dark character (a deathlord) instead of your usual paladin or hero character. It is a rather large book containing almost a thousand pages in the print edition and comprising nearly eighteen hours of audio. Unlike many in the category, this book makes you feel you are actually experiencing a virtual game world. If you enjoy LitRPG books, I believe you will enjoy this one. Just be aware, the book is the first in a series, and it is the only one currently available in audiobook format. I will be interested to see the direction the author takes this book.
If the sentence, “You awaken in a cold and damp dungeon”, sounds familiar to you, I think you get a good idea of the direction this will go. The beginning of the story is nothing new from others like it, however I really was able to enter the world and it felt like a game rather than just another fantasy novel. It felt polished and well edited. One really gets a sense of the characters powers and abilities as he levels up; and who did not like this aspect while playing such games? You felt the initial pain and struggle of a newly created level one character, and as the book progressed you felt the weight and struggles lift somewhat. However, some of the newer quests matched or even exceeded the players skill level. I thought the ranking system was also interesting. Not only are we given a skill tree to understand, but the book also contained trait and class details as well. Again, simply a nice touch adding depth to the story.
The world the author created consisted of many of the expected fantasy or adventure items and creatures. There were swords, spiders, rats, but the author additionally included some different things such as a quite powerful illusion ring along with others. Because the book was mostly focused on more dark characters, we were presented with vampires, ghouls, witches, along with other creatures who prefer the night. Because the main character was a dark mage, there was some good detail provided around the magic system and the character’s process of learning it. In many ways, the book is really a struggle between good and evil, however you are hoping evil wins in this case. Jack thorn seems to be a rather unique player with a rather unique voice; covered in the narration section.
Although the book often filled with pokes, zings, or bantering between the players and NPCs, it also contained some serious and emotional scenes as well. I thought the author did a decent job of taking us on an emotional rollercoaster from start to finish. The opening sequence is action filled and emotionally charged. That is not to say the book is overly deep or touchy-feely. There is plenty of gaming humor and fun found within its pages. The story is a bit darker than others in the genre, but it also deemed more complex and complete even though it is only the first book in a series of books.
The book’s narration was done very well by Jeff Hays. With this book, I felt he was trying a new technique by voicing the main character and the narrator as two separate people. Although the story was told from the perspective of the main character, the voice Mr. Hays used when the character spoke was quite different. I’m not sure the voice of the main character fit what I expected him to sound like, but as with other parts of this book, it grew on me. For the length of the book, the audio was performed flawlessly. No noticeable audio artifacts were heard. I also thought he did a good job of pacing the book’s narration. I even enjoyed the games female Artificial Intelligence (AI) voice at the end of each chapter. I will say that I did not enjoy the character stats given at the close of each chapter, however it began to grow on me and I wanted to hear how the character grew from the previous chapter. Again, his level and skill elevation seemed to be in line with the actions he took during the chapter.
For parents of younger readers, I would not recommend this book as the subject matter is geared more towards an adult audience. The book contains a fair amount of vulgar language (rather heavy at times), high-level sexual topics, and a few scenes containing intense graphic violence. If any of these offend you, I suggest you grab a different book.
For someone to want to be placed permanently into a virtual world due to a life event, you have to feel for him. Yet, even though he selects a dark character type, the story is written in a way that you want him to succeed. The writing is descriptive and not overly verbose. If you are a fan of the genre, I recommend you pick up Challenge by Edward Castle, and give it a listen.