Summary (No Spoilers)
Spoilers from here on out. You've been warned.
Final Ranking at the Bottom
Martin is the protagonist. From the beginning he is set up as a strategic mind with social problems. In his personal life, which the book explores to some degree, he works a job at a cubicle processing internet orders and dodging his boss, Gillian. He regards Gillian as a manager who is looking for any excuse to get Martin fired, despite the fact that Martin is one of the most efficient employees the unnamed company has. He single-handedly wrote an algorithm that practically automated his job for him, requiring his minimal attention. However, he doesn't socialize with his fellow coworkers because he doesn't care about their lives or problems. This, to me, is the most bit of evidence we have for the argument that Martin is on the autism spectrum. The other bits of evidence are his reputation inside his guild for being more machine than person, his relative lack of regard for the desires of (most) others, and the potential for an unreliable narrator. I mention this last part because other than Martin's interpretation of what is happening, Gillian seems to be genuinely concerned about him by her actions. I don't mention the potential for him being autistic as a negative, but as an explanation for behavior that otherwise is just chalked up to an anti-social personality.
Lindsay is the leader of the guild, Iron Riot, and Martin's best friend. She has what could be described as an explosive personality. She also tends to be rash, foolhardy, and overly talkative. So, of course, she chose the game's version of a rogue as her character. Now, I don't particularly have anything against Lindsay as a character. I found her fun and a nice dichotomy of Martin's overly serious personality.
All this being said, I do agree with some of the other criticisms that she doesn't really scream "leader" of anything. I've known some Lindsays in my life, and while the accuracy of those personalities is unquestionable from my experience, the position is more problematic. Lindsay is a hit first, plan later type of person, and while those make great enforcers, they don't make great leaders. In addition to that, she relies completely on Martin to do all the planning for her. While it's smart to surround yourself with people who are better at certain things than you, to be a leader who refuses to plan doesn't seem like a trait that would bump a guild to being known throughout the gaming community, like Iron Riot is. She and Martin have great chemistry on the page as they push each other to new heights, or in Strata terms, new depths, but I can't see a person like Lindsay effectively leading a guild of such renown through encounters that require such planning and effectiveness.
Julia and Jericho
These characters are always presented together, so I felt it would be wrong to talk about them separately. Julia is a healer, Jericho is the tank. Jericho is the character name, not the name of the person (as far as we know) because he is a private individual and doesn't like sharing information. He's often aggressive and confrontational, while Julia tends to be kinder and quieter. They're also clearly a couple.
These characters seemed a little lacking to me. They seem to exist to round out the party (Lindsay = scout/rogue, Martin = filler/support, Julia = healer, Jericho = tank), and to provide Martin with some internal strife later on in the book when they want to press on instead of waiting for Lindsay to respawn and rejoin them after being killed in game. Martin uses them as strategic pawns in the fights they have, and they cement the idea of Martin's prior reputation as a calculating, cold-hearted computer. All in all, these characters didn't really stand out to me and seemed more background. I hope the next book does more to include them and flesh them out.
Speckles is adorable. I'm very glad he's part of the story. That's all I have to say on that.
The game is interesting. It draws some parallels to the idea of an inverted Aincrad from Sword Art Online, but without the unpleasantness of perma-death or being stuck inside the game. There are four races to choose from, which, although they are called differently, boil down to wolfkin, snakekin, birdkin, and ratkin. As is obvious by the front cover, Martin chooses the rat race. Turns out everyone in the game hates the ratkin because they're generally bad guys early on, and so the story includes racism.
The game has unique (as far as I'm aware) classes that don't exactly align with normal class systems, of these Martin chooses a class called Exorcist, which resembles a spell-sword. Even the other classes, which I've generalized in talking about the characters, have their own quirks and mannerisms. The game also focuses on a religious aspect within what is essentially a grimdark setting, with the players being called crusaders from Aten, the god of light, and are tasked with delving into the dungeon to defeat the heart of sin at the bottom of the 100 floors. The game includes a sin counter, and doing certain actions, such as killing a boss or killing a player, can raise or lower your sin respectively. Most players start with negative sin, as they are crusaders from the light god, but if their sin reaches positive numbers, their classes invert and they become agents of darkness. The game also has an interesting meta in that when they die in-game, it's the dungeon that brings them back, not Aten.
The world-building and uncertainty of monster difficulty, combined with the maze-like design of the dungeon with differing levels did wonderfully in captivating my interest and helped keep me turning pages. Some of the plotthreads left hanging in the book also scream of further lore and information to be discovered in later additions to the series, to include an explanation for what the game really is.
Dungeons of Strata is a psychological game and Martin is a protagonist who thinks. There are dark concepts and Hail Mary plans, but throughout all of it, it kept my attention. This book grabbed me and pulled me in. The pacing was strong throughout and the characters, while they had their issues, were engaging. While this book wasn't everything I wanted from a LitRPG, it had a story to tell and it told it well. I will be following this series through, and keeping this author on my radar for books outside this series if the descriptions of those books piques my interest.
For the reasons I have talked about above, I give Dungeons of Strata a ranking of... *drumroll please*
7/10. I would recommend this book to people interested in LitRPG.
This blog is for Erebus to review the books of others. He will talk about somethings that were done well, done not so well, and then give a personal rating on the books. This rating is the opinion of Erebus and does not depict the opinions of any organizations Erebus is apart of.
Erebus Esprit is a fantasy writer from the United States. He primarily writes Sword & Sorcery Fantasy and Urban Fantasy.