Review: The Greystone Chronicles: Book One: IO Online (2/5)

The Greyston Chronicles Book One: IO Online Review

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TLDR: If you’re looking for a group-based litrpg to tide you over until the next Ascend Online book comes out, The Greystone Chronicles might do that for you. If, however, you want your heroes to be more than mildly inconvenienced or if you like villains with a hint of nuance, this is not the book for you.

Review based on the Audible production, so I apologize if any character or location names are spelled incorrectly. Mild spoilers, though not much more than you’d get reading the full book description.

Let’s start with what The Greystone Chronicles: Book One: IO Online does well. The group dynamics between the protagonist, Alexander, and his party (Brick, Max, Sasha, and, later, Laney) are generally enjoyable. You have the boisterous dwarf who enjoys fighting and drinking, the loot-hungry archer, and the female healer who is alternately amused and exasperated by the boys around her. These are familiar fantasy and litrpg troupes that are, if not new, at least still mildly entertaining in this iteration.

Similarly, while The Greystone Chonicles borrows of other frustrating litrpg troupes, such as the easy ability to convert real money to gold and visa versa, it at least tries to explain them. In the currency exchange example, we are told that the game developers intentionally set it up so people would be able to make a living playing their game. I’m honestly not sure how viable the system would be (I only listened to the section once) but the fact that Willmarth doesn’t just assume we’re okay with cash flowing out of the game (which doesn’t happen in real MMOs) is genuinely to his credit.

In fact, interactions with money are often enjoyable – in a wish fulfillment sort of way. Alexander is the game developer’s son, and the game-turned-corporation is one of the wealthiest privately owned companies in the world, so there are many moments where good people are saved, or deserving people are rewarded, with money.

For example, when an employee suggests rearranging how the market tax system works to help cut down on player frustration – a suggestion that would cost the company a lot of money – the board (Alexander’s mother, father, and their best friend) give her a massive bonus for her children’s college fund. (After “teasing” her by implying she was in trouble – can’t let her get away too easy). Still, after about 4-5 repetitions of this same sort of thing, it starts to get a little old…which brings us to the bad.

According to Willmarth, everything is funny all the time. At least, that’s the impression one might get from how much his characters laugh, chuckle, smile and giggle. This is a new writer problem with which I am intimately familiar. Using laughter as a beat between other actions or dialogue is tempting because it’s so easy. However, when used has much as it is in this book, it’s also really, really, really annoying and undercuts any tension that may have otherwise been built.

Of course, that assumes that Willmarth is interested in building tension. There are only two real problems in The Greystone Chronicles – Alexander’s disease and the PWP (Providence will Provide). Alexander has a neuro-degenerative disease that is similar to ALS (though is not ALS for some reason).

However, almost as soon as we learn our protagonist is dying we also learn that his multi-billionaire father has been developing experimental drugs which has considerably slowed the disease’s progress and that he also developed this nifty new pod immersion system to help retrain Alexander’s brain. So, Alexander’s disease is more like the book’s catalyst than a real problem that needs to be solved.

Even so, that doesn’t stop the characters from emoting all over Alexander’s condition, which, while understandable, feels a little unearned because the danger was introduced and then all but solved within a couple short chapters. The PWP proves to be a more enduring, though no more challenging, problem.

The PWP are a clan of PKs (player killers) who try to shake down our heroes, who look vulnerable because they had to reroll when they entered this new pod immersion system. What the PKs don’t know is that the heroes got to keep their legendary gear from when they were level 70+ because that’s fair.

The heroes trounce the would be player killers without breaking a sweat, not only this time, but every time they meet. We are told the player killers are stupid, immoral, and generally scum, which makes any mocking, or borderline torture, they receive from the heroes completely justified.

This point is relentlessly driven home by two catch phrases, “no mercy,” and, “see ya PWP.” Both are repeated ad nauseam by the party, NPCs (non-player characters) who have no real reason to agree with this philosophy, and other players. In fact, despite IO supposedly being the world’s most popular Massively Multiplayer Online Game, the only players not in Alexander’s party we interact with are the PWP and an anonymous cheering crowd.

This void is filled by NPCs, who are true artificial intelligence, so they are real people…At least as much as anyone is distinct in this novel. This character blending is particularly apparent in the female characters. There are three main female characters: Sasha, Laney, and Lidia. Sasha has been Alexander’s best friend since childhood, Laney is his PT/general helper, and Lidia is an NPC.

All of them have a slightly old-timey, “boys are stupid and reckless but we love them,” vibe. They also do all the cooking without question. Occasionally one of the boys, probably Alexander because he’s “sensitive” like that, “helps” with the cooking, but usually it’s just a man demanding food or a woman recognizing that it’s time to eat and happily going to cook something.

This insidious portrayal of women is only slightly soothed by the fact that Sasha is the group’s strategist. Still, before cheering too loudly that she’s allowed a brain, Willmarth lets us know that it’s only because, as the healer, she has a lot of time to look around and keep an eye on things during the battle. “The men have to pay attention to the fighting now, girl, you keep an eye out for adds or AOE.” (This is not a direct quote, but rather the impression the book gives)

In a very real way, the litrpg genre is all about wish fulfillment. In these books we get to imagine what the perfect game might look like and then go along for the ride as some (hopefully interesting) characters explore that game. However, between the lack of challenge, nuance (or indeed any sign of intelligence) in the villains, and the subtly toxic gender roles, wish fulfillment has rarely felt so gross.

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