Occultist by Oliver Mayes (Book Review)
The Good: Compelling characters, a perilous plot, brilliant battles, devilish demons and dark magic, and an imp named Noigel make this a not-to-be-missed LitRPG page turner.
The Bad: My ‘the bad’ has to be read in context with the fact I am NOT the target audience – the real world scenes didn’t work as well as the in-game scenes for me, and a specific scene in the middle let down the rest, but I’ll get to that in the body of the review.
The Ugly Truth: Whilst not my first outing in the LitRPG realm, Occultist is the first published novel in the genre that I have really enjoyed. Despite a few failings, this is a fantastic book which I hope will produce a sequel. It’s a shame that it’s targeted towards LitRPG readers on the whole, as this has real general-fantasy appeal (more so if its issues were addressed). Give this a chance, because like me, you might be pleasantly surprised!
The Review: Occultist by Oliver Mayes is one of many promised 2019 releases from new publisher Portal Books. Portal Books specifically publishes LitRPG (literary roleplaying game) i.e. ‘cross the streams’ of science fiction and fantasy novels with role playing games. I’d like to take a moment on this before diving into my review because this term, and the (sub) genre, were new to me only a few years ago. When I first heard about it I turned to Amazon, checking out covers and trying samples from the ‘look inside’ function. What I found was a mixed bag. There was some good and some not so good. So, I was a little dubious when presented with the opportunity to read Occultist. Which is why I can say with feeling:
This book surprised me in the best of ways – it introduced me to more books that I probably wouldn’t have given a chance before. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its own issues, but I’ll give credit where it’s due.
Right, where was I? Yes, Occultist. *minor spoilers ahead for the first few chapters*
Occultist is the story of Damien Arkwright, 16-year-old gamer in the real world, a.k.a. Scorpius level 28 warrior in Saga Online, a virtual reality (VR) massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) based in the fantasy world of Arcadia. When Damien’s mother collapses, he plans to win the Streamer Competition to pay for a new bionic heart, but disaster strikes again and he loses access to Scorpius.
Now, Damien will have to start from the bottom to reach the top, entering Arcadia as a level 1 character with no name, no class, and no hope of success. To stand a chance of taking the number-one spot, he will need to unlock the potential of the hidden occultist – a caster class with the power to wield dark magics and summon demons – and take on the biggest guild in the game, all whilst evading capture in the real world. All that stands in his way is the entire player population of Saga Online, including an army of Scorpius clones, everyone else on the Streamer Competition leader board, the number one player in the game, a cantankerous boss-level vampire and a disobedient imp named Noigel.
Let’s start with the plot. The story itself is relatively straightforward: 16-year-old boy saves the day by playing video games. We could debate how realistic this is, but regardless, within the context of the story it’s believable, which to me is a tick in the box. And splitting it between the events in the real world and Saga Online gives the ability to show how actions in one can have ramifications in the other – something I found really interesting.
Saga Online is a virtual reality game, so players aren’t limited by pressing ‘X’ at the right moment or selecting from options on a dialogue wheel. Players are free to do ANYTHING they want within the realm of possibility in the game.
On that note, whilst I really enjoyed the Saga Online chapters, some of the real-world sections in the middle fell flat for me. There was one particular section that for me didn’t work at all, partly because it felt like filler and for another reason I’ll get onto in a minute (see: Freaky Freja’s). Also, in terms of world-building, the game world felt far more developed the real one. I won’t hold this against the story, as we’re here for the in-game action, but there are things mentioned about the society that are never expanded upon.
Staying with the real-world vs game-world for a moment, something else I picked up on whilst reading this was the notion of escapism. Specifically, games as a means of escape from reality. Damien doesn’t come from a privileged background, and even before his mother collapses, his playing of Saga is a means of escape from his real life. But what really stood out for me is that this escapism is used as a device in the story – something that Damien enjoys doing can be used to save the day! Again with the realism debate, but you know what, this made me genuinely feel good. When I lost my father when I was 16 years old I threw myself into writing stories. If I could somehow have saved him by writing stories? You know the rest.
That’s not to say this is a deeply emotional story. It’s not. It’s a story about a teenager playing video games. But that doesn’t mean Occultist isn’t lacking a feel-good-factor, because it made me feel fantastic.
Except for when it didn’t…
Like I said earlier, when I first took a look into LitRPG, what I found was a mixed bag. This includes writing, editing, production value, and yes, the content itself. Now whilst Occultist shines in the first three elements (especially for the gorgeous cover art!) I did have issues with content. Or, I should say, issue:
About half way through the book (I checked, this is 50% through according to my kindle app) Damien hides out somewhere called Freaky Freja’s Pleasure Palace. I won’t go into too many details (spoilers) but several things almost made me put the book down at this point, but one thing above all else. Apart from Damien’s mum, Freja is the first female character he meets and interacts with in person (not via a call). So I almost stopped reading when presented with the following:
‘Freja stopped in front of him and folded her arms under her considerable bosom.’
Look, I get that this is the POV (limited third-person perspective) of a sixteen-year-old boy but COME ON. It’s 2019. Objectification of women is so last century. The male gaze almost made me, yes a male too, roll my eyes so hard that I gave myself a headache over whether or not I should bring this up in a review. But fuck it, I am, because it held me back from giving this a 5 star.
I will point out that I am not this book’s target audience. Yes, I am male and I play videogames, including RPGs and MMOs (Pre-CU Star War Galaxies and Final Fantasy 11 will always have a special place in my heart) but I am not the typical LitRPG reader. And no, I am not your typical SJW either, despite me making a point of this. There are elements of LitRPG, at least in my experience, that smack too much of ‘wish fulfilment’ for me to be comfortable with. And sure, fine, fantasy is ‘someone’s fantasy’ but that one line…THAT ONE LINE? It’s not needed. And more importantly, it’s not ok. It will never be ok now, or in the future. Let’s move on from shit like that. Like I said, it’s 2019, we’re trying to have a society here.
The other no-no for me, though less so, was a real-world section just before this. Damien spots two suspicious characters and doesn’t make the very obvious connection immediately (you’ll know what I mean when you read it). I’d forgive this in a less astute character, but in the chapters before this Damien has shown incredible wit, perception and quick thinking, enough to take on nine enemy players all higher level than him, AND a boss monster. Yet he doesn’t pick up on two goons? Yes, Damien does realise who they are, but for me this was too late (a few paragraphs too late), and if it was cut then it would be truer to the capable character that he is.
Which leads me nicely to characters. Damien is a truly brilliant protagonist, and one I genuinely got behind and rooted for. I couldn’t help but notice that this departure from Warrior class to Occultist was ‘brains over brawn’ and I don’t know whether it was intentional, but it gets a thumbs up from me. Other characters like Noigel the disobedient imp and Bartholomew the vampire are a joy to read. And whilst I made a point of the female characters earlier, it would be unfair if I did not include the third female character (who will remain unnamed for spoiler reasons) that Damien meets in person. She is fantastic, and although I felt a few of the interactions between her and Damien were a little weird/awkward, she stood out for more than just being one of a few females in the plot (although I’d like to see more please! And none without comments about their bosoms, ample or otherwise).
I’m really racking up the word count here, but fuck it…ACTION! The fight scenes in this were genuinely incredible. They were inventive, entertaining and unique. Damien directing different types of demons mid-combat was reminiscent of the World of Warcraft warlock class, but with proper tactics and some laugh out loud moments.
I’m going to try and wrap it up here because I could genuinely talk about this book all day. Which is a good sign, despite evidence to the contrary in this review. I loved Occultist. It’s a fantastic read. The target audience is clearly gamers and LitRPG readers, however it did have a YA flavour that doesn’t quite blend as it should. It’s a shame actually, as rather than catering to any single one of these, if this book was tweaked ever so slightly I feel that it could have greater appeal to a much wider readership in general speculative fiction, including the general fantasy crowd (including myself).
That being said, I genuinely believe everyone and anyone who reads speculative fiction, including fantasy and science fiction, should give this book a chance. A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work unless you open it. The same is true for books. And I implore you to open your mind, and this book, and jump right in.