“Pangea Online” is the first piece in the newly created “Death and Axes” series which I believe is the initial work from author S. L. Rowland on Audible at the time of this review. The audiobook is rightly classified as a LitRPG Novel, Literary Role-Playing Game, which often follows one or more characters as they travel and level up in a virtual world. Even though the book has much of what I have come to expect from this type of literature, there are enough differences to hook and bring you into the story. Another thing that sets it apart from many others I have listened is it use of two narrators instead of one. We have a male performing the male characters and a female voicing the female ones. And for me, it really worked well. I want to make note that audiobook produced by Soundbooth Theater guarantees one will receive the highest level of quality performances and audio out there. I have always been a big fan of Jeff Hays and his production work even when he is not directly narrating the book himself. If you enjoy LitRPG books, I would say this is one you may want to pick up. It has a deep and engaging storyline and it seems to flow quite well from its beginning to end. Be aware, this is the first audiobook in a series and the only one currently available. I look forward to more coming from this author in the future.
Let me say from the start that this audiobook is not the best and by no means was it the worst. It really fell in the middle for me by keeping me engaged along the way. The writing was a bit more a “Young Adult” (YA) style than I prefer, yet the story and narration helped me overcome that preference and enjoy the journey. Some of the language used by the characters felt childish and crude at times, yet the book tried to keep thing centered. As with most LitRPG stories, we have a young man who was orphaned, has limited social skills, and uses gaming to alleviate the pains of the real world. It felt like a coming of age, romance, and LitRPG all mixed into one; and that is not a bad thing. You have a low-class miner who is quite interested in being liked by a game-world princess along with a band of others.
The main driving force for our characters is to win a contest and utilize the prize money to cure a very sick person. Even though this is the main plot, there are many twists and turns the books takes along the way; much like side quests in a video game. There is bonding between the party, periods of highly emotional points, and just plain fun and adventure. The listener is also granted some character flashbacks providing good information on why our characters act the way they do. What I found funny was that even in this new and different world, one cannot escape the ever-present world of sponsorship and advertising. All of this on top of an organization saying “Keep on leveling” to drive people on while holding them in the game.
As with many fantasy books, you are presented with your normal trope of characters such as Goblins, Liches, dwarfs, and rainbow unicorns. You will also see some of the standard roles or classes such as miners, rogues, royalty, etc. Yet, the author did not simply stick to the norms of a fantasy world, nope. He instead blended many of the elements, so the characters could experience them together. There were a few special times when the characters met out of world and each was quite different from one’s in-game persona. I liked the use of various pets such as owls, wolves, and bears. Each had its strengths and weakness like one would expect from a role-playing game. I thought many of the spells or magic felt new and different from other books. Overall the book felt well thought out and that it always had a direction to progress towards.
If you have listened to other books in the genre, you will be familiar with the stats, inventory, skills, and quests found in this book. Yet, this book does a good job of dropping hints about the dystopian real world the characters must survive in. The author does a decent job of letting the listener see the gloomy and cruel world these characters must face when outside of the game. I really liked that, as the title suggests from Pangea, the characters had a plethora of worlds which they could enter and explore. This also makes for a great way of making more books as the listener is often only given a slight glimpse into some of the non-fantasy (steampunk, mythology, etc.) environments. This provides the author with nearly limitless direction they can go in future books from the series.
The quality of both the narrators and the audio production are what we have come to expect from Soundbooth Theater. Both of the narrators expressed great passion, excitement, and enthusiasm while reading their portion of the book. There was also a good use of sound effects enhancing the book, but not overly used so they ever become annoying. I liked having the two different narrators as this helped make the book feel more like a play or movie. There were no noticeable audio artifacts or issues with the book’s audio that I can recall. For the audiobook purist, there is one spot, nearer the end of the book where a sentence is repeated. Just a slight editing overlook, yet the rest of the book is flawlessly narrated.
For parents and younger readers, this book does contain both vulgar and crude language at times. There are some points involving sexual topics or subject matter which may not be appropriate for all audiences. The book has characters using alcohol along with a few pieces of graphic violence, but it is nothing that would be considered excessive. If any of the above items are offensive to you, I recommend you find a different series to enjoy.
In summary, for an author’s first published audiobook, I enjoyed the journey and I think you will too. I hope the same narrators will perform the series of books as this appears to keep things joined. Additionally, I would like to see some more complex writing in future books, but this often comes over time with experience. If you are looking for a new LitRPG series to jump into, this one is a good one to start with.