[Review] Occultist (Saga Online) – Oliver Mayes

On to the next novel! This is Occultist – Saga Online, a LitRPG novel by Oliver Mayes which is being published by Portal Books.

For full disclosure – I received an advance review copy of this novel for free in exchange for my honest review, as part of the TBRindr program for indie/small publisher authors to find reviewers.

Occultist follows Damien, a 16-year old who is working part-time as a tester for Mobius, a company producing a VR MMO. He’s also studying intensely to test into a better school, at the urging of his sickly mother. To his horror, though, after an argument between the two of them, she collapses, and is rushed to the hospital. Healing her means buying a new, bionic heart – something they don’t have the money for.

There is, however, a prominent voting-based contest within Saga Online, which has a large enough pot of money at the end to purchase the heart. Damien had, before his mother’s collapse, run into a stroke of fortune when Mobius asked him to participate in a widely-viewed stream in place of a popular player, Aetherius. That luck turns sour when Aetherius comes back for revenge, taking Damien’s newly-remade character and throwing him to the bottom of a PvE dungeon.

Expecting to die immediately, Damien finds himself alive – and face-to-face with the boss. To his shock, the boss isn’t immediately hostile, and in fact offers the level 1 player the chance to become an Occultist – a class which no one in Saga Online has seen before

With his new identity as the game’s first Occultist, and his mother’s life on the line, Damien sets off to win the community’s heart and get his revenge on Aetherius.

I’ll be honest. I was pretty optimistic about this book going into it. To me, the cover was pretty appealing, and while, yeah, they say not to judge a book by its cover, it certainly does help to feel like some value and effort was being put into the novel xD I liked that the cover had a more serious tone compared to a lot of LitRPGS I’ve seen/read, and it was just cool. So, instant points for me there.

And, truthfully, I enjoyed this book. I think that it had its flaws, but I was overall pretty happy with the read it gave – especially considering that this is a debut novel – and I’d certainly read something else by this author in the future.

Let me go into a little more detail, then. I will do my damnedest to keep this spoiler-free, of course 🙂

What worked for me with Occultist?

I think that a lot of Occultist’s strengths come from voice and characterization. By and large, I think that Damien was a fairly realistic/sympathetic representation of a 16-year old, and I liked Bartholomew’s character in particular. I’m a huge fan of sarcasm in writing, and there was just the right amount of it here to make me chuckle without feeling like I was being slapped across the face with it.

To go along with that, the text itself was a pleasure to read. Mayes has a very fluid, easy-going way of writing that meshed well with what I really like to see in a book. There was description, but not too much, and the story was a central focus (as it should be).

To expand more on that in particular, I think that Occultist did a really good job of balancing its LitRPG nature with the need to do more than just be a game. There are in-game mechanics, yes, and they’re a prominent feature in the story, but as someone who, uh…well, they’re not really my thing, and I was able to skim past most of the particularly stat-heavy portions without feeling lost or confused by what the MC was doing.

In particular, I think that the combat scenes did a nice job of not going too far. A lot of LitRPG fight scenes read as very dry to me, due to the overemphasis of in-game mechanics and damage points, and I didn’t get that feeling here. It was an element, but an element there to support the story. Which is, imo, how it should be 🙂

All right, sunshine and butterflies time is done. You had your day.

What were the issues that I had with Occultist?

Please don’t be offput by the fact this is longer – I just like to be very specific about what didn’t work for me. Let’s get down to the meat of it. I’ll sort of split my complaints into two categories – the minor complaints, which by themselves might have been distracting, but passing, and the more major complaint which lingered with me as I read the whole thing.

The little stuff:

To begin with, I had a bit of an issue figuring out the proper tone and audience that this book was aimed towards. Occultist opens with the main character and his mother having an argument – Damien arguing to be allowed to continue playing, and his mother telling him to study and do his homework. It’s exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to a younger audience, and in my opinion, that seems to fit well with the eventual ending, which feels a little more YA in how things resolve.

Now, then, this is contrasted by essentially everything that happens in-game, which features a lot of neck- and chest- stabbing and at least one substantial discussion about the length of Damien’s intestines and their suitability as garland for the home base. When I was reading things that were taking place inside Saga Online, it felt like it was intended for a notably older audience – more like upper high school or college, versus the ~middle school to young high school of the opening segments. Those estimates are just taken from my gut feeling here, mind.

Not book-breaking for me, but like I said, a little distracting.

Going along with that, much of the book read as a dystopian fiction for me, given the strangely dispassionate responses from people Damien interacts with, the cold, ruthless set-up of the world, and the seemingly absurd aggression that the government used in regards to tracking down a lost, scared child. And no one seemed to find any of this deplorable or at all unusual. Then, at the end, it was like a switch was flipped, and this was hand-waved with a single line about over-zealousness. It didn’t add up to me, and it left me doubting the perception that had been crafted throughout the whole book.

My other minor complaint would be regarding the combat – as I’ve said before, I did find the combat to be fluid and overall unburdened by mechanics.

Where I found it lacking, then, was that Damien only really seemed to struggle or face actual consequence at the tail end of the book. Up until then, he happily tore a swath through the other players, in numbers that sometimes bordered on unbelievable. I’ve been a gamer my whole life, and normally PvP games aren’t set up where a single player can 1v7, no matter the element of surprise or their distraction. I never really felt like Damien was in danger, given the ease with which he was killing and destroying, which made the fights seem distant at times.

The more major complaint:

Ok. So. I will probably have some level of spoilers in this section, so if you are considering reading this (and I do consider this to probably be a pretty darn good LitRPG, if that’s your thing) then you should move on from here.

But for everyone else, here we go.

One of the things that really stuck out to me with this book, from very close to the start of the novel and continuing throughout it, was the remarkable way in which things seemed to line up for the young Damien. He found himself whisked out of the starting zone so very quickly that he couldn’t pick a class. Which is absurdly rare. And then he traded all of his rags to another player, rather than just unequipping them, which to me felt odd. I’d feel weird trading greys to a high-level player, and it doesn’t seem like it’d function that way in an actual game. Frankly, this point seems sort of throw-away to me, since a level 1 in rags isn’t much better than a naked level 1. He could have kept his rags and nothing would have changed.

And then he’s thrown down into the one dungeon that just happens to contain a hidden class trainer specializing in PvP – the specific thing that Damien wants to do more than anything, after that whole series of events.

I’ll be honest. I kept watching and waiting for the twist to come in – that the hidden trainer was put there by the devs, and this was all an elaborate set-up by Kevin to get Damien to play-test the new class they just designed. That Aetherius knew the trainer was there, and was trying to use Damien as a guinea pig or set him up to get exiled from the online community, freely killable. Or that Aetherius was himself a hidden class – the notion supported by all of the feeds about his techniques being such a mystery that people were trying to figure out – and maybe these trainers aren’t all that unusual, which the MC could piece together in time.

But nothing came. It was just…a coincidence. And that’s a pretty big coincidence – the situation that led to a level 1 making it all the way into the heart of a dungeon without picking a class or killing any enemies was simply too specific and implausible. And no one seemed to wonder about it, including the main character! It felt like everything was arranged specifically for the purpose of getting Damien to that point, and no one thought that any of this was odd or noteworthy, and it didn’t sit well with me for the entire book.

There were a few other smaller instances of notable coincidence. Probably the next most notable was the fact that Aetherius’s ex-girlfriend was a medical student, putting her in the perfect position to sympathize with Damien and have insider information as to his mother’s condition – and deal with his medical crisis at the end. I did enjoy her character, and I thought that her story was reasonably plausible, but it did seem very, very convenient for her to be there and already willing to jump to Damien’s aid without even having met him first. By itself, it wouldn’t have been such an issue, but at that point I was a bit wary.

Final thoughts

As I said before, I truly did enjoy Occultist. I think that it’s probably one of the better LitRPGs that I’ve read thus far, even despite the flaws that I couldn’t quite get past. The writing is fun, the style is bright, and the characters are relatable. Hell, I laughed out loud at the ending, and that’s pretty rare for me. So don’t take my critique and notes here the wrong way – if you enjoy LitRPGs, or stories that cross over between fantasy and reality, then I do recommend giving this piece a shot. I’ll be watching Mayes in the future to see what else he can come up with.

Thank you to him and to Portal for giving me the chance to take a look at this novel in advance!

Rating: 3.5/5

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: