[Review] HOPE Engine – Andrew Lynch

A few weeks ago I was contacted to review HOPE Engine, which is a LitRPG novel by Andrew Lynch that was released on the 30th (today) – and is our next book to be reviewed!

HOPE Engine – by Andrew Lynch

HOPE Engine, being a LitRPG, centers around a video game.  More specifically, the novel is based off the idea that conflicts in the broader world were sidelined by the invention of an immersive gaming system which allowed for people to adopt new lives apart from their old struggles.  Without the things that had once divided countries and individuals, a peace was brokered in the continuing form of this game.

Quentin, then, is a young man in the UK turning 16 – the age where one is able to start playing the game, rather than studying.  He leaps in eagerly, opting to play Tulgatha, which is the fantasy game available to him, and creates a warlock (Akuma Severo).

As the game progresses, though, the world starts to feel the effects of an army sweeping across the land, destroying player-owned settlements.  More to the point, they start to realize that something is very, very wrong, and the army is not following the normal rules that it should by the game’s engine.


LitRPG, generally, isn’t my go-to genre.  I’ve read it before, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of the pieces that I’ve read, but it’s just not normally something that I would seek out.  But, hey, my goal with this was to help some indie authors get reviews and publicity for their name, so I’m always willing to give them a read 🙂

HOPE Engine did a very good job of having a consistent voice throughout the book.  It’s a first-person book, and those can be a challenge at times to have the character come across, versus feeling like a flat, generic self-insert figure.  And that’s something that I think this novel did well – the prose made liberal use of internal monologue and such to allow the character to feel different. At times I think it used a little too much and became a touch overpowering, but it did an effective job of making Severo feel like an actual character.

Additionally, the book is well-polished.  I can’t say that I spotted a single typo, and grammatically, it’s spot-on.  I love it when a book feels like the author invested time into it, rather than popping it out and throwing it onto the market.  It made reading this much easier to have it flow nicely.

Now.  To be perfectly blunt and honest, this book didn’t work for me.  I think that there was a ton of potential here to turn this novel into more than it is now, and that potential wasn’t acted on like it could have been.  

I’ll break down what I mean by that into a few categories here, going roughly from minor to major issues.

Action

Being set in a fantasy world, HOPE Engine’s action should be right up my alley.  And I think it has a lot of potential. Unfortunately, though, in action scenes, a great deal of time is spent detailing how many points of damage are dealt, how many mobs resist his spells, and how many experience points are gained.  That sort of stuff. Mechanics.  And so, what should be a flavor to remind readers that it’s a game becomes a much larger element than it should.

Frankly, I found that it damaged the flow of these scenes, and made them feel unnecessarily drawn-out.  It wouldn’t have been book-killing by itself, but it did detract from my enjoyment.

Character decisions/agency

At a few points, Severo’s actions flatly felt unrealistic.  For anyone, really, but especially when it’s taken into account that this character is supposed to be 16.

For one example, Severo has to decide which game he’s going to play – Tulgatha, the fantasy game, or Galaxy at War, a sci-fi game.  Despite the world having developed completely immersive VR, they somehow haven’t managed to create cross-server communication, which is something World of Warcraft does right now, so going to different games means saying goodbye until you leave the game again (effectively forever).  

Severo is an orphan.  His parents gave him up to the government so that they could spend more time online, which is a common occurrence.  As such, he has one real friend, another young man named Daniel. But where Severo wants to play Tulgatha, Daniel wants to play Galaxy at War.  Rather than, you know, staying together with the one singular person important to each of them, they happily part ways and set off to totally different lives.  It doesn’t seem realistic to how people behave, honestly.

For a second example, Severo at one point has a run-in with something called the N-plague, which is a sort of virus hiding in the game’s network.  If it manages to transition from the server to his pod and to him, it’ll mean a long, slow, painful death, which he knows.

At a certain point in the game, he’s brought face to face with it, and the system does an emergency ejection to, you know, keep him from dying.  After a rude awakening and spending a good bit puking all over his apartment, Severo has to wait for his pod to purge the virus from its systems.  But once it reopens for him, he happily jumps back in and goes straight back to leveling – completely unshaken about the fact that he just literally nearly died.  It seems like an aside, and that’s the sort of thing that should shake someone to their core about a computer system they’re entrusting their life to.

In short, at several points, realistic character reactions or decisions are pushed aside, seemingly so that the MC can get back to the game.  It makes the characters feel more shallow and contrived than they should.

Introduction

After entering the game, Severo goes through a series of quests and events which amount to being Tulgatha’s tutorial.  This begins with questing and combat, and moves forward into settlement building. It goes on for a very, very long time, and a lot of information about how the game world functions is presented to the reader.

That’s really where things go wrong for me.  A lot of the information presented doesn’t really seem to matter, at least not at the moment, and an awful lot of it never really was relevant to any meaningful degree in the story as a whole.  As a novel with 140,000 words, it isn’t as though HOPE Engine needed padding or fluffing out – so putting lengthy sections of tutorial at the very introduction of the novel soured any initial excitement I had for the story

Story

Which brings us to, in fact, the story.  HOPE Engine, by the blurb on the back of the novel, promises us a conflict with this army.  “An unnatural enemy is rising, more glitch than feature, that not even the highest level players can stop. A noob like Severo doesn’t stand a chance! Right? But with his starter village in the enemy’s warpath, he better figure something out!”  It’s laid out as the central conflict, in fact.

Despite this, he had one encounter with one of the army’s ‘soldiers’ relatively early on in the book, and then a meeting with the army’s emissary before the final conflict.  The rest of the book was spent on questing or grinding or building his player-owned settlement or collecting gear.  The story felt very much like an afterthought, something to be brought up just to make sure that the reader didn’t forget a big bad was coming.

To add on another piece – There were a number of logical inconsistencies early on that seemed odd and out of place.  Some of these were covered in the ending and explained away, but it took so very long to actually get there that it felt as though they were simply overlooked.  When the reader has figured something out, and realized something isn’t normal, but the MC is totally unaware and carefree and not thinking about it, it’s extremely frustrating, and feels like the MC is being made stupid for the purpose of facilitating the story.

‘Romance’

God, I really don’t know what to call this section, so I’m going to call it romance.  But with that said, it goes further than that, more into objectification and character growth and what’s acceptable behavior to effectively endorse in a novel.

For most of the book, there’s nothing approaching romance.  In fact, in terms of adult characters, there’s only one female character who has both a name and spoken lines of dialogue.  This is, of course, the romantic interest, Bri.

The relationship kicks off a little awkwardly at around ~60% of the way through, with the main character going from being totally disinterested in the romantic interest to being all-in in the span of literally a paragraph.  It descends from there into him fantasizing about getting her pregnant, then cheating on her with a fire elemental (she’s a water elemental, so, you know, something she’d take personally) while knowing she’d stay with him because there were kids involved and he had money.  Note that at this point he hasn’t actually confessed yet. From there it went even further downhill fast, to him going to finally confess, finding another man in what he thought was her room, and having a mental outburst that he left her alone for a few days and she turned into a ‘literal whore’.  When he hadn’t so much as told her how he felt – she was supposed to either read his mind, or just keep herself waiting around just in case he decided he was interested.

Frankly, it was offensive.  It’s not something I’m normally particularly worried or sensitive about, but this was in-your-face enough to stand out.  And, while this could be an excellent starting point for some character growth and personal improvement, these thoughts and feelings are never portrayed as a bad thing.  At no point does anyone tell him he can’t be like that, and at no point does he realize that he’s being a dick. Rather than being a character arc where he grows and matures, it’s just….let stand.

The ending and some final thoughts

I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers here, but I do feel like this needs to be addressed.

Now, I did finish this book.  I honestly do think that the story is one that has a lot of potential, but it’s badly mishandled.  The most interesting parts of it are skimmed over early on in the book, passed up for grinding and tutorials and leveling, and then crammed in far too quickly at the ending.  At a certain point in the ending, it feels like I’m reading an entirely different book, which is not a good thing. There’s also not really a solid ending – it just….stops. And that left me feeling wholly unsatisfied, even though clearly it’s building to a sequel.  I felt that providing that sense of resolution to book one is important, even if there are more books coming.

Part of me could believe that it was a simple worry that the book would be too long, or go on too far if it was brought to a better ending point.  I’m not sure I give that weight? HOPE Engine is 140k long – to put this in relative terms, Nightsworn, Ascendant, and Silvertongue are 160k, 180k, and 210k long, respectively. Long works, if it’s done for a reason, and this would be a very good reason.  Adding another 5-10k words wouldn’t have broken the camel’s back, and might have brought the story to a plateau that felt more like an ending than “guards are swarming the MC’s location, and he’s walking.”

If nothing else, as I pointed out earlier, the introduction portion of the book has a lot of ‘fluff’.  If length is the concern here, I feel that the tutorial zones could have been trimmed better, to allow for that word count to be applied where it could do more good.

I really do think that this novel has potential, and given another month or two of editing and tweaking and polishing, I think the parts of the book that shine could have been brought out more fully.  I’d like to read that book, down the line. As it is, this was a bit messy for my tastes.

Final rating: 2/5

[Review] The Brotherhood of Sfarr – Mark P. Davies

Thanks for stopping in!  Let’s dive right into the next of the book reviews I’ve got going.  The book I’m going to talk about today is The Brotherhood of Sfarr, by Mark P. Davies.  This is the first book in the Weavers and Wyrders saga, of which according to Goodreads and Amazon there are two books out thus far.

Here is a link, for those interested.

Brotherhood of Sfarr

The Brotherhood of Sfarr follows Jenna and her younger brother Hahn as they arrive in Frethenia.  Their uncle lives there, and Jenna wants to start an apothecary.  Her hopes are dashed when she discovers that women aren’t permitted to do that.  Upon arriving, they’re forced to watch as a woman is Incasted for being a witch, which means she has her tongue cut out.  In their attempts to help the ‘witch’ and find out why she was being punished, they uncover a plot by the local church to eliminate an ‘alternate doctrine’, and begin to see the signs of an ancient prophecy coming to life surrounding their land’s next queen-to-be.

All…right.

Okay.  So.  I will be up front and honest here – I DNF’d (did-not-finish) this novel, at about 30% of the way through the text.  As such, the comments and critique that I leave here can only in good faith apply to that section of the book.  With the cat out of the bag, the question becomes why, and what went wrong for me with this book?

I’ll begin by talking about some of what I think this book does very well, before delving into the critiques.

Above all else, it’s very, very obvious that a great amount of love and care went into this book.  The world is exquisitely developed, with everything down to moon charts created to accompany it.  I’m sure that Davies has put an astounding amount of time into creating the universe and setting, and that shows.

Additionally, I think that the imagery contained within was really exceptional.  If you’re looking for a read that could really engage your senses, then this could be a good fit for you.  A great deal of care is taken to illustrate the scenery, and show the characters’ attempts to find beauty in their world.

As with the scenery and world, the grammar in this novel shows the same level of meticulous care.  Mechanically, the sentences and prose in this book are rock-solid, and the only issue that I’d pick with it on this front isn’t really a grammar issue (I’ll discuss it more below).

So.  That’s what clicked for me.

What didn’t?

First and foremost, the single biggest barrier that I had to reading this book was a powerful concentration of series-specific jargon.  There were new names for everything, from shirts to gowns to meals to days and so on and so forth.  I think that worldbuilding and creating a detailed, intricate world is an admirable goal, and I’m not saying to not have any of that in the book, but there were instances where a single paragraph would have four or five terms I didn’t know in it.  At that point, it became an imposition to my reading, since I had no basis for understanding why those terms were important enough to warrant being different and new.

I think that this problem for me was emphasized with the way each series-specific term was treated as a proper noun – I mentioned a bone to pick with grammar above, and this is it.  The story has creatures called mala, which are akin to rideable birds.  ‘Dinner’ was also renamed to ‘evenmeal’

Now, when these terms were referenced, it would be written as, say,

“Jenna urged her Mala onward with a nudge.”

“Hahn licked his lips, his mind already on the Evenmeal ahead.”

In every instance, these series-specific terms were capitalized, and this in my mind really served to continuously make sure that they stood out to the reader.  Where I might have otherwise grown used to them, as I should have, and blurred over them, instead they were set apart as different and special every time they were used.

In the end, rather than make the world feel unique and alive, they just served to hide what was happening in the story behind dense text and events I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand.

I did feel that especially at the start, there wasn’t enough attention given to characters’ identity/motivations.  I struggled a lot with Hahn especially – He’d wax poetical about the way the water filled up the bathtub, making complicated comparisons to society and learned behaviors, and then turn around and call Jenna “sis” like a child.  In time, I figured out that was because Hahn is supposed to be a prepubescent boy.  Given his ponderous nature, that frankly didn’t come across, and so his character always felt conflicted to me.

It continues on through where he’s ‘negotiating’ with two women to spy for him.  After they agree, one asks if he’d have ‘put them to death’ if they didn’t, and he smiles and says yes.  It feels incredibly out of character with how he’d been established thus far, and it makes him seem more brutal/warriorlike than the ‘cunning’ the audience is told he is.

Likewise, even though we as the readers were told often that Jenna was a warrior, it wasn’t played out as such.  Jenna comments at one point that the locals clearly have gotten ‘witch’ and ‘warrior’ mixed up, since they keep calling her a witch.

Well, at that stage, Jenna has had prophetic dreams, tried to open an apothecary, prepared and administered strange/magical healing remedies, and prayed to a lesser/unrecognized goddess.  And has not gotten in a fight or any such business.  Frankly, the cityfolk are right, and Jenna is wrong.  She certainly presents like a witch more than a warrior.

In the end, telling the audience someone is a certain way isn’t enough.  They have to be shown to act that way, plausibly and naturally.  Throughout the whole opening section, I felt like very little care was given to the decision making process of the characters.  They acted often seemingly without regard for danger, or without even stopping to muse if it was a bad idea before deciding they needed to act despite the risks.  It reduced their agency.

Finally – I’m putting this last because it’s more structural and less story.

I was reading on kindle, through my phone, with the text side pretty small (I don’t like to change pages often).  While I was doing so, there were a number of times when I’d change page, and find that the entire next page was a single paragraph with no breaks.

Situations like that made the book very, very difficult to read, as any points of importance were hidden behind a seamless wall of flowered prose.  I’d recommend that another look be given to the formatting, to try and break some of that up.

And…I think that’s about enough xD

I do think that there’s a ton of potential in this series and from this author.  At the core of the story was a story, which certainly held a lot of promise, and given the obvious care Davies took with his world, I’m completely certain that there were some good and exciting things coming down the line.

My overall rating: 2/5

Would I recommend this story to you: I think this story could appeal to those who enjoy fiction with dense, visually-intensive prose, or those who enjoy a worldbuilding-heavy story.

Percentage of book read: 30%