EXODUS OF GNOMES by Demi Harper (BOOK REVIEW)
My experience of LitRPG is still pretty limited having sampled a couple of SPFBO examples but only read two through to completion, the first being Demi Harper’s LitRPG debut God of Gnomes and the second it’s sequel Exodus of Gnomes. I like RPG games and I like fantasy books but I was wary as to how these two concepts would mix together. It’s the kind of question chefs of old must have wrestled with as they sat with chocolate in one hand and a chilli in the other and went “I wonder what if…” However, God of Gnomes brilliantly satisfied my curiosity and assuaged my concerns with a tale full of compelling characters – even if one of them was literally a rock – and a nerdy side order of game mechanics. (Reviews of God of Gnomes available here and here )
The question was, having vanquished his kobold foe, nurtured his gnomish denizens, and secured the borders of his realm, where could Harper’s protagonist – the God core Corey – go from here?
Harper’s answer in its simplest form is “somewhere else” but that response belies the imaginative creativity in this second instalment of Corey’s personal odyssey.
Exodus of Gnomes opens with a helpful recap of the key events of the first book, though I recommend this more as an aide-memoire to those returning to Corey’s world, rather than a substitute for reading the excellent first book. Suffice to say Corey was reincarnated (after a life he only vaguely remembers) as a god core with his spirit trapped in a gem and his future dependent on worship by a forlorn community of gnomes. By guiding those gnomes in various mysterious ways, Corey was able to inspire their faith and increase his power. In this he was advised by a sprite Ket who explained the rules and systems to creating creatures and assigning gnomes to useful professions. The overall effect was like a pleasing mix of the games SIMS, Civilisation, Medieval Total War, and World of Warcraft all transformed into a lived (or read) experience. The story arc in God of Gnomes was a simple but satisfying one with Corey and his denizens fighting of the threat from Grimrock god of the neighbouring kobolds in a desperate struggle to avoid being sacrificial fodder.
In Exodus of Gnomes the initial threat is more environmental. Steadily rising water levels threaten to flood the Gnomes’ out of their homely grotto – where Corey’s gem (god core) rests on its specially consecrated altar – turning the entire community into bedraggled refugees (Is it me or am I seeing climate change fiction in everything I read these days?).
Finding Corey and his attendant community a safe new home to relocate to is not as simple as it sounds. Corey loses not just powers but awareness when his gem is not on the consecrated altar, so the gem has to be kept and transported in a sturdily built (!) and properly consecrated ark, and even then while in transit Corey’s range of perception is reduced and most of the powers and abilities he built up in the course of God of Gnomes are unavailable for the duration of the journey. Ah yes – and as a final element to the challenge of exodus – there is a time limit with a ticking clock helpfully counting down the forty days allowed to successfully complete the exodus challenge. Fail and Corey loses all the benefits he so painstakingly built up in God of Gnomes – but forty days is loads of time right? even if their target mountain range is thirty-five days travel away surely that’s still a comfortable margin of safety? – yeah – about that!!
So, the most obvious shift in premise between first and second books is from “God in situ” to “God in transit.” The second is in the range of perspectives and politics. Book one was essentially a binary conflict of protagonist Corey versus antagonist Grimrock with the occasional intercession of a party of humorously incompetent human adventurers. While the humans return in Exodus of Gnomes, it is to alert Corey that he has drawn unsavoury attention from people in the human world and the journey is not simply gnomes against the environment, but gnomes (and their god) against a complex conspiracy of shifting alliances and multiple deities. To illustrate this we spend more time in the heads of the humans – namely Coll the hammer wielding warrior, Ben the firey mage and Tiri the spying thief. However, in keeping with the LitRPG theme, these characters also have their own talents to develop and abilities to unlock. In Ben’s case it’s the desire for a familiar to bond with, Tiri wants to understand what is going on and wades through hidden corridors and gruesome murders as various bad guys pick up and drop their masks. Coll – in typical barbarian style brute force and ignorance – seems to hanker after something to sharpen his hammer with, and hard as that might be, this does give the story a few of its standout moments.
In Exodus of Gnomes, Harper avoids the temptation to simply revisit and extend the successes of God of Gnomes. Corey’s tale launches off (literally) in a fresh but entertaining direction with an expanded world view – and the visceral challenge of a ticking countdown clock that puts reader and god core on a perpetual nervous edge.
There is still the banter between Corey and Ket – and the humans – the cynical Corey with his very dark past who nonetheless gets fiercely protective over his hundred or so gnomish denizens, so much so that he begrudges every casualty on the exodus (and there are casualties!). But Corey is not unaware of his followers very human characteristics such as observing longshanks – his prime hunter – at leisure.
“He would lean casually on his spear while regaling my acolytes with tales I had no doubt were exaggerated if not blatantly made up. I couldn’t speak Gnomish, but the language of bullshit was universal.”
Journeying above ground is a strangely claustrophobic experience for Corey who has spent his past and present life entirely underground, so the exodus is especially discombobulating for him.
“I felt like a dormouse in a field as the hawks circled overhead. No Shadows. No Shelter. How do surface dwellers not go mad beneath the weight of all that sky.”
The politicking of divinity takes place mostly away from the exodus itself, exposed through Tiri’s hazardous probing of dusty libraries and corrupt masters. The threads of history, of an old war between light elves and dark elves and their respective gods, weave a complex but incomplete tapestry around Corey – the purple god core – who seems somehow crucial to many conflicting ambitions. These narrative intricacies beg for resolution in a third instalment of Harper and Corey’s progress through the levels of LitRPG. However, Exodus of Gnomes is a delightful and complete read on its own with Harper’s prose well suited to the flawed but compelling characters she has created, characters who never take themselves too seriously finding humour and innuendo in even the hardest of circumstances.
Both author and protagonist approach the challenges of a different travelling circumstances with a fresh and inventive eye. This is particularly so in the expanded biosphere were new creatures and combinations are birthed from a vigorous union of authorial imagination and real world zoology. Meanwhile the human participants get fleshed out in a way that mixes humour and pathos. The variety of perspectives ensures that the final fifteen percent or so of the book play out in a frantic set of parallel races, with characters confronting disparate but interconnected challenges. Every obstacle surmounted seems only to reveal another critical peak to be scaled while the ticking clock mercilessly counts down in a finale that would do justice to any Hollywood blockbuster movie.
Exodus of Gnomes is out on March 10th 2021 and is available to pre-order from: