Monday, June 1, 2009

N00b

Is it possible that I've listened to two books with an MMOG theme in the past two weeks? Is it possible that that's two books too many? I mostly enjoyed Locked Inside. I'm a little more lukewarm about Discordia: The Eleventh Dimension by Dena K. Salmon. (This is the author's My Space page; check out the visuals of Lance among her Friends. And hey, she's an audiobook listener!) Could this be because her characters actually play the game? And that games -- active and visual -- don't translate well to a listening mode?

Lance has recently moved to a new school in Manhattan and is having difficulty making friends and staying awake. Both these problems could possibly be attributed to his addiction to the gameworld of Discordia, which he plays as often as possible. As a n00b [newbie] zombie sorceror, Lance has progressed to Level 17, with the aid and flirty friendship of one MrsKeller, who is a Level 23 hobgoblin brigand. Whatever! Both players are approached by TheGreatOne (Level 60), who invites them into a special guild of Discordia. Flattered, they agree and are soon physically whisked through a portal to the actual Discordia, the world upon which the game is based. There, Lance learns that MrsKeller is an African American boy living in New Jersey (transplanted from New Orleans ... Alabama? I can't remember) named Adam, and that TheGreatOne has recruited them for a mission: Obtain the wand of the evil sorceress Alchemia, who is intent on ruling -- and not peacefully -- Discordia. (Discordia is the Roman goddess of strife and, well, discord; her Greek counterpart created the Apple of Discord that started the Trojan War.)

Their quest begins and the boys make their way through a world that is somewhat familiar to them. Dangers and horrors await. Lance seems to be sharing his human body with that of his zombie persona, who -- at the sight of blood or fresh meat -- can completely take over and make him do things he doesn't really want to do. But Lance also might be a druid, since he becomes bonded with a rabbit (called a bunya in the book) who seems to be able to pull him from the brink. Along the way, their paths cross with an escaped slave named Rayva. The ending is not for those who want satisfaction: Lance gets back to his Manhattan apartment, but it's not really over.

The reader is Nick Podehl, and he sets the right tone for awkward, unhappy Lance: A bit of a whine, some petulant boredom and exhaustion. Once Lance enters Discordia, you can hear him mature bit by bit. When Lance is overtaken by his zombie character, and Podehl narrates with dispassion and distance. He does a pretty good job with the novel's other characters: MrsKeller is consistently voiced with a Southern accent, TheGreatOne sounds ... well, great. Rayva is voiced in a higher register, but doesn't sound like a fake girl. Podehl sustains his characters throughout the course of the novel. He knows how to build excitement with pacing and vocal inflections -- speeding up, changing volume, registering fear. This story is in capable hands.

But the material here is so limited. The first disc and a half of the story is dominated by those e-conversations that are fine when you are reading to yourself but can make you batty if you have to listen to every instance of a speaker's email address or persona name. There was a great deal of "Lance whispers to MrsKeller" while exposition was being delivered, and it's so very easy to tune out. Then, you find yourself going, "Huh? What happened?"

I've also found that the nature of this fantasy/quest subgenre -- protagonists are playing media-type games for their lives -- is that everything is in there. Our heroes meet an untold number of Discordian creatures -- none of whom seem particularly friendly, defeat them (demonstrating a skill that's no doubt eventually going to come in handy) and move on. Although I was relieved that there was a minimum of expository dialogue ("Look Lance, it's a flesh-eating flying beelzebub that only lives in fetid, poisonous swamps!"), these encounters were yet another place where I lost track of what was going on. It was simply hard to stay interested.

The audiobook begins and ends with excerpts from the Player's Guide (also available online ... is it in the book at all?). I thought Podehl did yeoman's work here keeping this part interesting. I paid particular attention to the portion at the end of the novel ... hoping, no doubt, for enlightenment; and it did help. That makes me wonder where things like this are most effective in the story? Not at the beginning, because it won't mean anything and you're likely not to remember. Yet, at the end, it's almost too late. Hmmm ... interrupt yourself while listening and check it out? Actually, the answer seems to be read it: You can flip to it whenever you want!

Finally, the musical interludes (beginning and end of each disc) didn't seem right for this book. It was a new-agey Irish flute that was way too mellow. Something a bit more electronic and exciting might have been more effective.

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