The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov

The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey KurkovTitle: The Gardener from Ochakov
Author: Andrey Kurkov
Translation: from Russian by Amanda Love Darragh
Published:  First published 2011, this edition published 1 August 2013
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Genre: fantasy, historical
Rating: 5/10

Igor is a bit of a loser, a 31-year old man who doesn’t have a job or any plans to get one, and survives on the interest from a small investment. He lives with his mother in Irpen, Ukraine, about an hour away from the capital Kiev. One day his mother hires a mysterious old man named Stepan to work as their gardener and handyman. Stepan has a strange, indecipherable tattoo on his arm but he has no idea what it is. Bored, Igor photographs the tattoo and takes the picture to his friend Kolyan, a computer expert. Kolyan cleans up the image to reveal an address in Ochakov, a seaside town.

Stepan travels to Ochakov to learn more about his past, and because Igor has nothing better to do, he tags along, looking for adventure and treasure. The possibility of treasure sounds absurd, but this is exactly what they find – the address on Stepan’s arm leads them to what was once the home of Fima Chagin, a infamous criminal who lived in Ochakov in the 50s. Stepan’s father too, was a criminal, who left a stash of loot at the house.

As a reward for his help, Stepan gives Igor a few of the items – a gold pocket watch (broken), rolls of hundred-rouble notes (worthless), a gun (that doesn’t fire) and a Soviet policeman’s uniform. Igor feels short-changed, but one night he wears the uniform to a costume party and finds himself in 1957 Ochakov, where the pocket watch starts ticking again, the roubles amount to a very large sum of money, and the uniform gives him an authority that strikes fear in the hearts of citizens.

Stepping awkwardly into the role of a Soviet policeman, Igor ropes a young wine smuggler into helping him spy on the criminal Fima Chagin, who is living in Ochakov at this time. This quickly leads Igor to Red Valya – a stunningly beautiful fish seller who may have had an affair with Fima and who immediately captures Igor’s attention and admiration. He begins to flit between present-day Ukraine and 1957 Ochakov, entwining his life with his dabblings in the past.

Now, genre fans, a warning. This is not the kind of book with any interest in the time travel itself, the thrills and perils it offers, or complications like time paradoxes and anachronisms. I wouldn’t say that this is the kind of book where literary fiction and sff intersect because the sff aspect is almost negligible. Time travel is just a plot device. We have no idea why or how it happens. Igor doesn’t think about it much, and isn’t worried about getting stuck in 1957. All we know is that he has a few stiff drinks, puts on the uniform, walks down a certain road, and ends up running into Vanya, the wine smuggler, at the wine factory in Ochakov in 1957. To return home he takes the uniform off and goes to sleep on the couch in Vanya’s house. He wakes up in his own bed in Irpen. He believes that taking the uniform off will send him back home, but he never tests this theory. Nor does he check to see if he needs to drink copiously to time-travel, or if he could walk a different route to end up somewhere else. The time-travel phenomena really only serves to take him to 1957 Ochakov and back, juxtaposing the places and periods, and allowing Igor to carry out his little adventure.

His very random little adventure. It’s unclear if Igor is driven by anything other than idle curiosity, and he doesn’t seem to have any goals. He wants to spy on Fima Chagin partly because he’s pretending to be a policeman, and partly because he learned about this legendary criminal when he travelled to Ochakov with Stepan. What he’d actually do with info on Fima’s whereabouts is anyone’s guess. It’s no wonder that Igor is quickly and easily distracted by Valya; he’s just hanging around looking for something to do. There’s a semblance of a plot here, but it meanders aimlessly, much like Igor himself.

Normally in books like this, something else will drive the narrative, such as the character or setting. But in this case nothing did, at least not for me. The characters are all pretty boring. Igor, who has no ambitions other than to buy a motorbike one day, is totally colourless. Vanya is little more than a plot device deployed to guide Igor in 1957, except for a vague suspicion that he might be up to something sinister. The women in the story particularly dull. Valya is there to be a beautiful but reluctant love interest. Igor’s mother Elena Adreevna does little more than cook, clean and scold her son. We meet Stepan’s daughter, who is often just a silent presence.

There are a few potentially interesting characters who seem to have better stories – Stepan; Igor’s best friend Nikolai Kolyon; and the criminal Fima Chagin. Stepan is full of secrets, almost none of which are revealed. Kolyon is vivacious and enterprising – the opposite of Igor – and as a hacker he starts selling information illegally. However, his story is mostly sidelined. Fima Chagin, a famously handsome, charismatic and successful criminal also gets sidelined when Igor loses interest in him in favour of trying to get Valya to spend time with him.

Mostly, the novel seems to be about creating snapshots of day-to-day life in modern Ukraine (Irpen and Kiev) and 1957 Ochakov, which aren’t really that different. This involves stuff like public transport (Igor taking a minibus from Irpen to Kiev, buying instant coffee at the train station), a bit of crime here and there (Vanya’s wine smuggling, Kolyan’s hacking), food (buckwheat with a knob of butter, fresh flounder and gobi from Valya’s stall, salami and salted cucumbers), and A LOT of hard liquor (vodka obviously, but also vodka shots in beer, homemade vodka, brandy, and homemade wormwood liqueur, which I just found out is absinthe).

Then, towards the end, there are a few serious developments as , and Igor starts to have some insights about life – the aimless way he’s living, human nature in general, etc. None of it was exactly profound. Or memorable. Or book-redeeming.

Reading The Gardener from Ochakov is like moving languidly from point A to point B. If books were journeys then this would be a trip to the supermarket. A Ukranian supermarket, maybe. It’s not unpleasant, you pick up a few new and unusual things, but it’s mostly mundane. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it – I’m totally indifferent.

I’d say it’s more for fans of literary historical fiction than sff readers or any reader who enjoys plot. Kurkov uses an extraordinary and unexplained phenomena to portray ordinary lives rather than tell a gripping tale. And because there’s not much of a story driving the narrative, your potential enjoyment depends on whether you find the everyday details of Ukrainian life interesting, or if you’d like to follow the wanderings of a benign drifter like Igor. Its not necessarily a bad thing, and I can see how some would find a quiet, quirky appeal in The Gardener from Ochakov, but it’s not for me.

The World of the End by Ofir Touché Gafla

The World of the EndTitle: The World of the End
Author: Ofir Touché Gafla
Translation: from Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg
Published:  First published 2004, Tor edition published 25 June 2013
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: mystery, fantasy
Rating: 7/10

Ben Mendelsshon is a righter. In intellectual circles he’s known as an epilogist. What he does is ‘right’ other writers’ work by write endings for them. But the one ending Ben cannot handle is the death of his wife Marian in a freak accident. The couple were deeply in love and had what seemed like the perfect marriage. Unwilling to give up on it, Ben commits suicide in the hope of being reunited with Marian.

The afterlife he finds himself in is neither heaven nor hell. It’s just another world – the Other World – where all the dead keep on living in something similar to a standard, westernised city life, with a few decidedly odd differences, like the fact that there are no clothes so everyone walks around naked. Each individual is given an apartment based on the date and time they died, but when Ben goes to Marian’s apartment, he learns that if was left abandoned.

Desperate to find his wife but clueless as to how to do it, Ben enlists the help of Mad Hop, a passionate detective (whose nickname is based on his favourite fictional detectives – Marple, Dalgliesh, Holmes and Poirot). While they track down Marian, interlinking narratives play out in the world of the living. A famous artist who was once asked to paint Marian’s portrait has a stroke and ends up in a coma. His wife Bessie remains hopeful that he will wake up, while a socially dysfunctional nurse tries to convince Bessie to switch off the life support, as she does with all patients in that condition. The nurse, Anne, has fallen deeply in love with Ben, after seeing him in the gym on her daily walk home from work, and his unexplained absence upsets her.

In a more romantic love story, a man and woman begin an online romance based on their shared love of Salman Rushdie’s writing. Inexplicably, the woman is named Marian and recently divorced her bastard of a husband. Her presence is just as perplexing for the reader as her absence is for Ben. Is Marian dead or alive? Nothing quite makes sense.

It’s a convoluted mystery with loads of characters (I’ve mentioned fewer than half of them), but the story is actually fairly easy to follow. Gafla starts out with a bunch of seemingly disparate narrative threads and slowly begins to weave them together into a story that’s much bigger than it seemed at first. Ben’s search for Marian is still at the heart of it, but other characters’ lives and actions play into it in myriad ways that only the reader – who sees all the POVs – has the scope to appreciate.

It avoids being confusing at least partly because Gafla writes vivid, memorable characters. It’s clearly one of the things he loves most about writing fiction, and one of his greatest skills in the craft. His characters all have their own stories and quirks that are interesting in themselves, full of love, loathing, humour, horror, weirdness and wonder. So, when a character suddenly pops up several chapters after they were first introduced, they tend to be easily recognisable even if you’ve forgotten their names.

Gafla’s not quite so good when it comes to world-building though. Compared to our world, The Other World is a utopia of peace, technological advancement and immortality but it wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny. The enforced nudity supposedly makes people “infinitely more trusting, developing a reputable, honest society where costumes, masks, and other props are unnecessary”, but it seems impractical. I’d want shoes and sports bras at the very least. And since people still put on plays and other forms of entertainment, what’s wrong with costumes? Also, it’s very fucking odd, but it seems like everyone adjusts to it far too easily after living in a world that requires clothing.

Another world-building issue is the godget – a remote control that each person carries on a strap around their neck. The godget has six buttons, each of which is used to control some aspect of your existence – making it your favourite time of day, effecting your preferred mode of sleep (dreams, no dreams, number of hours), providing updates on the previous world. The way it works is really stupid. For example, button two controls your personal climate, so you click the button once for snowy, twice for cold but not rainy, three times for cold and rainy, and so on with the final option at twelve clicks. How does anyone remember how all these options? A technologically advanced world like this one would have come up with a much more user-friendly device. And if they can give you recordings of your ENTIRE life to watch, how can they still be using video tapes? It’s clearly stated that the Other World advances with the world of the living, so there’s absolutely no excuse for tapes.

However, I would say that you shouldn’t worry too much about the world-building. The World of the End is the kind of novel where that particular lapse in logic can be frowned at and then shrugged off because it’s not the focus of the book. The Other World is there to allow a certain story to play out, rather than as a serious speculation of how the afterlife might function (although it’s an infinitely better idea than heaven or hell).

What you do get then, are ideas on what kind of life you might lead in the Other World, because it’s really just another kind of life. Without currency or any need to work, people tend to do things because they’re passionate about them, like Mad Hop who has “always investigated for the right reasons, unadulterated curiosity. Nothing satisfies me more than the clean annihilation of question marks.” Famous artists, writers and musicians continue to produce new work, often using the technology of later centuries. People can carry their obsessions from one world to the next, they can change with the times (the technology of the present is available to all the dead of the past, for example), they can opt for eternal sleep if they can’t handle eternity. And face with eternity, people’s relationships have changed. Ben has to face up to the possibility that Marian might not want to be with him anymore, since death nullified their marriage vows. And if he finds her, they will eventually part ways anyway.

Admittedly, these ideas aren’t explored in great depth because it would detract from the main story and there just isn’t enough room. As you might have noticed, there’s a lot going on here, and later in the novel there’s also a lot of musing on Ben’s predicament. There’s a metafictional touch when Mad Hop suggests that Ben’s anguish comes not from the fact that he hasn’t found Marian but from the possibility that he might not find her – he’s a man who crafted endings for a living, and he assumed his suicide would either lead him to Marian (a happy ending) or oblivion (the end to all his stories). He did not imagine that Marian could go missing while life went on in new ways. I quite liked this and some of the other little musings by various characters, but this is also where the books takes a turn for the worse.

At the start, it’s a tightly-written, clever story. After the halfway mark, it starts to unravel. It gets a bit long-winded, the living-world narratives keep expanding, and the search for Marian is too unstructured. Mad Hop doesn’t seem like a particularly good detective. He doesn’t do much investigating himself; most of the time he shows Ben investigative paths, like sending him to speak to dead relatives that Marian may have contacted. Then, there are times when Ben happens to mention key information that he didn’t know would be useful. Each time, Mad Hop gets angry at Ben for holding back, but Ben doesn’t hold back; he just doesn’t know what’s important because he doesn’t know how the Other World works. It should be Mad Hop’s responsibility to ask the right questions.

I was starting to worry that this initially wonderful book would leave me disappointed, but I was happy with the way it ended. It’s not exactly a nice, neat ending, but by this point in the book you should know not to expect one. What Gafla does throughout the novel is give us a sense of human life with all its complications, absurdities, joys and disappointments, and the ending is no different. He never descends into dreary realism – on the contrary, so much of this novel is totally bizarre – but he tends to balance happy resolutions with bad ones and non-existent ones. I quite like it and I’m glad I read this one. It’s something very different for both mystery and spec fic readers.

Up for Review: Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia

This one caught my eye because of the unusual narrative – the story is told using alphabetical encyclopedic entries that make up the notes an author has written for his novel.


Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by Jose Manuel Prieto

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by José Manuel Prieto, translated by Esther Allen

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

“A terrifyingly original writer, José Manuel Prieto’s prose shakes the walls of the literary kingdom.” —Gary Shteyngart

In Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, José Manuel Prieto has beautifully crafted a kaleidoscopic portrait of modern life in Russia through alphabetical encyclopedic entries. Poetic, humorous, truth-seeking, and fanciful, Prieto melds literature, philosophy, and pop culture into a story of two misfits caught between old traditions and modern consumerism.

Thelonius Monk (not his real name) travels to Russia and meets Linda Evangelista (not her real name) in Saint Petersburg. They journey to Yalta, where he promises that he will make her red hair famous in the fashion magazines. In fact, he’s drafting a novel about her—his notes for the novel comprise this Encyclopedia. Thelonious and Linda think of themselves as avatars of consumer culture, navigating the border between art and commerce during the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Unwittingly they parody Russian fascination with America and its fixation on beauty and celebrity. Their conversations combine advertisement copy and art criticism, their personalities are both bohemian and commercial, and their aspirations revolve around frivolity and enchantment.

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia is a novel that defies chronology and conformity, and finds the sublime in the trivial, ranging from meditations on Bach and Dostoyevsky to Italian alligator shoes and toothpaste.

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia was Prieto’s debut novel, first published in 1998 in Spanish. Black Cat, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, is publishing an English edition, to be released on 8 January 2013.

Add it on Goodreads
Order it at The Book Depository
The novel on the publisher’s website
Brief review on Publishers Weekly


About the author:
From Grove/Atlantic: José Manuel Prieto was born in Havana in 1962. He lived in Russia for twelve years, has translated the works of Joseph Brodsky and Anna Akhmatova into Spanish, and has taught Russian history in Mexico City. He’s the author of Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire and Rex. He has held teaching appointments at Cornell and Princeton, and currently teaches at Seton Hall University.

Blog (in Spanish)

The international literature festival, Berlin, 2003 (bio)
List of works on Goodreads


Review of Strindberg’s Star by Jan Wallentin

Title: Strindberg’s Star
Author: Jan Wallentin
Translator: Rachel Willson-Broyles 
Published: First published October 2010 in Swedish; this edition  to be published 24 May 2012
Publisher: Viking, an imprint of Penguin USA
Genre: thriller, adventure, fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 4/10

I really loathe having to review books like this. It’s not because it’s bad – this is hardly one of the worst books I’ve read. But even when a book is bad I don’t normally have a problem describing it and explaining how I felt about it and why. Strindberg’s Star however, is both dull and complicated, making it hard to pay attention long enough to scrabble together the information for a decent plot summary, nevermind a thorough articulation of my feelings about the book. I’d like to just give you the short simple version of my review which is this: Strindberg’s Star sounds like a good thriller, but it’s really boring so don’t waste your time. I’m obliged to write a proper review though, so if you want to know more, read on.

Diver Erik Hall is exploring the depths of a flooded mine shaft when he discovers a dead body clutching an ankh, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life. He notifies the authorities about the body, and it instantly becomes a major news story. Everyone assumes it’s a recent murder, but it turns out that the body is far older than expected and has simply been very well preserved. Erik keeps the ankh a secret, but when all the media attention starts dying down, and he uses it as an attempt to get back into the papers.  He tries to get Don Titelman, an expert in religious symbols and Nazi history, to take a look at the artefact.

Don isn’t interested, but when he eventually gives in and goes to see Erik he finds the man’s corpse cooling outside. A secret society was after the ankh, and one of their agents murdered Erik in an attempt to get it. The society ensures that Don is framed for Erik’s murder. During an interrogation at the German Embassy in Sweden, Don and his lawyer Eva Strand are told a remarkable story about the ankh and a corresponding artefact – a star (I just have to mention that I don’t know why the interrogator bothered telling them this very long and complex tale). Both artefacts were studied by the famed scientist and photographer, Nils Strindberg, who discovered that together, the star and ankh could work as a magical map to a shifting location at the North Pole. The treasure and knowledge that can be found at this location is highly sought after.

Don and Eva are inexplicably imprisoned in the German Embassy but manage to escape and go on the run. With nothing but a postcard as a clue to the mystery of the artefacts and the dead man in the mine, Don decides to try and learn more. However, he and Eva are being chased by both the law, and the secret society that had them framed. Now that the ankh has been discovered, the race is on to find its partner – Strindberg’s star – and then travel to the North Pole to see where the map leads.

The adventure is intertwined with history, Norse mythology, fantasy and Nazi secrets. It sounds a lot like a Dan-Brown style mystery-adventure, with its artefacts, secrets and a protagonist like Don. I’ve never read Dan Brown (and never will), but artefacts and conspiracies seem like good ingredients for an entertaining read. Not in this book. The characters are flat, the writing is clunky, and the story tends to be confusing and slow. There’s a lot of long, dense exposition – history lessons and character backgrounds. Some of these are actually interesting or at least easy to read, but with most will make your eyes glaze over. It’s the same with the story as a whole – a few interesting bits amidst many long, dull sections.

Don is pathetic protagonist. He should be great for this story, being an expert in mythology and the Nazis, as well as possessing photographic memory. He can offer endless bits of interesting trivia and find all the fascinating connections between the clues. And yet he’s a dud. You see, Don has some serious childhood trauma, thanks to a grandmother who used to tell him about all the horrific experiments conducted on her in the Nazi concentration camps. Thanks to his memory, Don never forgot a word. To cope, he became a drug addict. Having qualified as a doctor, he is able to prescribe medicines for himself, and he carries around a bag full of pills. He pretty much uses powerful prescription medication to constantly control his state of mind – if he wants to calm down, go to sleep, be more alert, etc. he takes a bunch of pills. He doesn’t even bother with water, he just chews them.

Unfortunately when he goes to Erik Hall’s house to check out the ankh, his mouth is dry with anxiety so he takes some anti-anxiety pills that he’s never tried before and washes them down with some wine he sees on a table. Thanks to this utterly moronic decision, his fingerprints are on the bottle, making it look like he was hanging out with the murder victim, and when the police get to the house they find Don in a drugged stupor kneeling next to the body. It’s hardly surprising that they arrest him, and it’s easy for him to be framed.

This is just the first occasion when Don is too drugged or sick to be of much use. Half the time he seems to be flopping around or falling over – it seems a miracle that he manages to get anything done. He’s in his forties, but most of the time I picture him as a sickly old man.

Then there’s Eva Strand, Don’s attorney and sidekick of sorts. She’s a stiff, formal woman with extremely pale skin and a preference for a 1940s style of clothing. I mention the latter, because at one point while they’re on the run, Don and Eva need to buy new clothes, since their own have been ruined. Don just gets the first decent suit he sees, but despite the fact that they need to keep a low profile, Eva insists on shopping around until she finds the specific type of clothing she’s looking for. Argh… There are some very odd things about Eva too – her excessively pale skin, a stiffness in her joints, and an ability to heal very quickly. Don notices all these things, but doesn’t make much of an effort to enquire about them, even Eva’s healing abilities. For the reader it’s clear that this is somehow important, so it’s annoying that Don is so obtuse.

Eva isn’t the only one with special abilities. The secret society has a beautiful young agent named Elena who seems unnaturally strong for her tiny frame. As a child she had paranormal powers that allowed her to “look into other people’s thoughts, see all their dreams and hopes in distorted, brilliantly coloured forms”. The book doesn’t really explain what this means in practical terms, but we do know that Elena’s powers have been a great advantage to the secret society, at least until they faded away in her teens.

The vague understanding I had of Elena’s powers characterised my understanding of most of the book. It’s not that I didn’t know what was going on, but most of it seemed hazy, indistinct. Like watching a movie but walking in and out of the room all the time. I’ll admit that maybe I was just too bored to concentrate properly, but that in itself is a criticism. This isn’t supposed to be a literary masterpiece or groundbreaking philosophy – I shouldn’t have to work so hard.

Since it’s already a bestseller in Europe, I have to wonder if part of the problem is that it just doesn’t translate well, so that the consequently clunky language serves to dull the novel. So maybe give it a shot if you can read it in the original Swedish, or perhaps one of the other European languages it’s been translated into. But if you’re going to read it in English, give it a miss.

Still want to read Strindberg’s Star? Order a copy from The Book Depository.

Review of Erebos by Ursula Poznanski

Title: Erebos
Author: Ursula Poznanski
Translator: Judith Pattinson
Published: First published 07 January 2010 by Loewe in German. This edition published 1 February 2012
Publisher: Annick Press
Genre: YA, mystery, thriller
My Rating: 6/10

Nick Dunmore’s classmates are acting strangely. His basketball teammates keep missing practice and a lot of students are staying home sick or look like they’ve been up all night. They’re all being very secretive about their behaviour, including Nick’s friend Colin who shuns Nick but is seen sucking up to two boys who are so uncool Nick calls them “The Freaks”. It’s all got something to do with a DVD that’s being passed among the students. Those who have it refuse to talk about it, and Nick – a popular jock – can’t understand why he’s being left out. When he finally gets his hands on a copy he finds that it’s an amazingly realistic multi-player online fantasy role-playing game called Erebos.

The game has weird rules. Always play alone. “Never mention your real name in the game. Never mention the name of your character outside the game.” Never speak about the content of the game to other players or post information on the internet. Don’t copy the DVD unless instructed. The strangest rule of all, is that players only have one chance to play – if they die or break any of the rules, it’s over and they cannot play again.

Like all those who started playing before him, Nick finds the game highly addictive, so when the Erebos starts giving him instructions to do things in the real world – like picking up a package in one location and dropping it off in another – he complies just to keep playing. But the instructions get increasingly demanding, and eventually Nick fails to comply and is banished. It’s only then that he starts to ask the important questions – why does Erebos make people do things outside of the game? What is the purpose of all those strange, restrictive rules? And who is benefitting from it?

I love the idea behind Erebos, but I had a few issues with the novel, mostly involving the game itself. Firstly, it’s way too sophisticated. Yes, it’s supposed to be a revolutionary piece of programming, but it’s still a PC game and that imposes certain limits on how realistic it can be. I can just about accept that the game allows players to aim their weapons at certain body parts while fighting. For example, during one of his first fights Nick tries to disable a troll by cutting the tendons in its legs. I can also accept that accurate and detailed wounds are inflicted on players and monsters, so that when Nick stabs the troll in the leg he can actually see the wound he made and watch the blood running out of it, and he can also see that his avatar’s shoulder is bleeding where the troll’s weapon hit it. As far as I know this isn’t possible in any game at the moment, but Erebos is special. Fine.

However, it goes too far. Some movements are just too subtle, such as when “Sarius feels for the sword at his belt”, touches an object “very cautiously” and then puts it in his inventory “[w]ith the greatest care” or when a barbarian named Bloodwork “straightens up a bit and reaches for his ax, but then… seems to reconsider”. Exactly what keys would you use to perform these kinds of movements? Is it even worth it to programme that in?

The problem here, I think, is that the author is writing in a way that blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. Nick doesn’t just have an avatar named Sarius – in his mind he IS Sarius. The narrative doesn’t speak about Nick manipulating his keyboard controls to make Sarius run, jump and fight; rather, the perspective switches so that everything is seen from Sarius’s point of view, and he even talks about Nick as though he were another person.

This is not a bad thing; in fact, it’s a rather nice tactic that gives you a sense of how immersed in the game Nick is. The problem is that Poznanski seems to forget, at times, that parts of the narrative are in a game world and consequently it becomes so realistic that it’s actually implausible.

But even if I could accept that level of sophistication in the game, I still struggled to believe that it was as addictive and controlling as the narrative requires you to believe. On the contrary, it seems boring and frustrating much of the time. At the start, for example, the player runs around in a forest with nothing to do and no clear goals until he or she stumbles across a man who then provides directions. For one player, this takes 20 minutes and it could easily take much longer. There’s no tutorial teaching players how to manoeuvre, and although experienced gamers like Nick would manage to find their way, it must be extremely frustrating for anyone to play by trial and error. Non-gamers would have been baffled and unlikely to continue. After all, they’re playing on PCs with a whole keyboard to figure out, rather than the more limited and user-friendly controllers of an Xbox or Playstation.  Frankly, I find it hard to believe that such a large number of players made it through the tedious first stage.

The gameplay also lacks many of the features that I find appealing and motivating in RPGs (although I have to admit I haven’t played any of the online versions). Firstly, it’s too restricted. You can’t improve your skills or raise your level in normal gameplay. You can’t run around raiding tombs, caves, ruins, etc. for treasure because there isn’t much lying around. These things are almost entirely dependent on the messenger – a gaunt, yellow-eyed figure riding a giant armoured horse. If players fulfil their real-world instructions or fight well in battle, the messenger will reward them with gold, armour or weapons, or by raising their level or improving their skills. The only other way to raise your level is by ‘winning’ levels from players when fighting them in Arena battles. However, players are forbidden from fighting each other outside of the Arena, so that option isn’t always available.

Missions and real-world tasks also come from the messenger, with the result that there’s not much to do if he doesn’t give you something specific to do. Players spend a lot of down-time having online chats around a fire. However, they’re can only chat where there’s a campfire, they’re only allowed to light fires when the messenger gives them permission to do so, and their conversations are highly restricted by the rules of the game. Fun.

Seriously, I can’t understand why everyone goes nuts over this. Yes, it’s unbelievably realistic, but when Nick talks about why he loves the game he doesn’t talk about the graphics and the controls, he talks about the fighting and campfire chats. If that’s what he wants, I thought, why doesn’t he just play World of Warcraft?

Now, if you find it hard to believe that Erebos is such an addictive game, it then becomes equally hard to believe that players allow it to manipulate them in the real world, especially when they’re given instructions to do things that are illegal or come at significant personal cost. I also felt that the gameplay bogged down the narrative. The first half of the novel is a tad slow, and much of it is spent within Erebos as Nick/Sarius fights monsters, pits his skills against other players in the Arena, or has chats around a campfire.

Onces he fails to complete a real-world task and gets banished from the game however, the pace really picks up and the novel becomes a proper, exciting thriller. Nick and others start asking serious questions about the game and investigate its real-world significance. It’s also only in the last quarter of the novel that I started to warm to Nick, who wasn’t the most likeable of characters. He’s got the arrogance and cruelty of the stereotypical popular jock, and when he starts playing he becomes just as much of an asshole as the other players who got addicted to Erebos. When his best-friend Jamie expresses concern about him, he reacts with anger. However, I’d say there’s a purpose to Nick acting like such a dick – he gives us an idea of the effect that playing Erebos can have on people. They become extremely defensive and secretive about the game, and thoughtlessly hurt their own friends in the process. Their lives are consumed by the need to play, and they begin to destroy their own lives and relationships in the process. A comment on gaming in general perhaps?

Anyway, as I said, the narrative ensures that Nick becomes a nicer guy towards the end, so in general the second half of the book left me with much more positive feelings than the first half. Overall, I found Erebos to be a decent read, with some disappointing aspects. I’m curious as to what other gamers would think of it. On the one hand, the game-based plot makes them the obvious target audience, but gamers are also more likely to be critical of the game itself, as I was. Perhaps its better enjoyed as a mystery/thriller than a book about a game.

Buy a copy of Erebos at the Book Depository