My Life as a Troll

My Life as a Troll

It seems that video games are a running theme this month! Following on from Nick’s review of Sword Art Online, here’s another example of why gaming can seriously damage your health!

My Life as a Troll is Susan Bohnet’s debut novel and was first published in 2014. It is a coming of age story which focuses on a teenage boy’s addiction to a multi-player online role play game (MMORPG). Although the novel feels as though it is the start of a series, no further instalments have been announced at the time of writing.

Jared’s life sucks. His parents fight all the time, his older sister is dating a jerk and he has recently become the target of a particularly vicious school bully. In order to find a way to escape the harshness of reality he retreats into the popular online game, Lavascape – an immersive virtual reality experience which allows him to role play in an epic fantasy world.

Reimagining himself as a troll named Jerry, Jared quickly gets the hang of the game and begins to spend more and more time in Lavascape. As his skill grows, he slowly gets drawn into the game’s wider story. Outside the safety of the Troll Village, a war rages with the trolls and goblins on one side and elves and giants on the other. Soon, Jerry starts to have visions about what his quest must be. The human princess Sparklet is being held hostage and only he can free her before she is executed.

Yet as Jared spends more time in Lavascape, his social life begins to suffer. His grades drop and his friends begin to think of him as being unreliable. To make matters worse, his body seems to start to undergo physical changes. Is it possible that Lavascape could be turning him into a troll in real life? And is it possible for him to kick his habit before it’s too late?

As you may be able tell from today’s photo, I’m not adverse to a bit of gaming myself. I’ve sampled a lot of MMORPGs over the years (with my longest run being on World of Warcraft) and so I’m familiar with both how these games work and how addictive they can be. Which is why I think that this novel unfairly represents the medium.

To get my geekery out of the way, Lavascape just couldn’t function as a game. Sorry, I know that I should be trying to suspend my disbelief for the sake of enjoyment but I just couldn’t get past how wrong Lavascape is. Its class system was entirely unbalanced (if trolls are the strongest race, why doesn’t everyone just roll a troll?), there is no way to level your characters, there are no visible quest hubs or non-playable characters, players are required to log on at exactly 6pm every evening or their stats suffer and it is largely unclear until the climax of the story just what happens if your character dies. I don’t want to make the assumption that the author has never actually played an MMORPG but they certainly don’t seem to really understand how a game of this sort actually functions.

My disbelief was stretched further by the absurd side-effects that Lavascape seems to have on players. For the sake of escapism, I would almost be able to buy that the changes that Jared undergoes are an isolated incident but that does not appear to be the case. At the start of the novel, it is strongly hinted that people are protesting against Lavascape due to its adverse effects on a players’ health. A player is on top of the world while they are playing but suffer when they are disconnected. If their character is hurt or killed in game, they even experience physical pain. Yes, I’m aware that it’s all an extended metaphor for drug use and withdrawal but most drugs are illegal for this very reason. How has Lavascape not been pulled from sale if there is such strong evidence that playing it is potentially fatal?

Okay, I’m sorry. Rant over. Let’s actually take a look at the story.

My Life as a Troll is actually pretty well written and is deeper than you would imagine. It’s easy to understand why Jared would want to escape to Lavascape rather than deal with his problems. Although he doesn’t initially realise that he’s unhappy, it’s clear to the reader just how much his life sucks. Everyone around him seems to have issues but he feels powerless to change anything. This is why a fantasy world holds so much appeal for him. It’s a place where he can be whoever he wants to be, winning the respect of others through use of skills and strength he does not have in the real world.

I have to admit that for the first third of the story, I was very curious. I was intrigued by both Jared’s quest and how it would ultimately affect his social life. Game mechanics aside, Lavascape is a pretty cool world. It’s visually striking and contains an collection of fantasy races that you would not necessarily associate with MMORPGS. Humans and elves are pretty standard but the giants and scurry (a kind of chimera of kobold and worgen) add some nice variety. I wondered if Jared would find a balance between his hobby and spending time with his friends (as any sane gamer would). I particularly wanted to see if there was an explanation as to why he was turning into a troll and if there was a way to reverse it. Unfortunately, the novel left me very disappointed.

I’ve already revealed that the novel makes increasingly clear that his gaming is a bad thing and that Jared should quit cold turkey. Unfortunately, the novel becomes very repetitive while trying to hammer this point home. As Jerry’s adventure in Lavascape progresses (which was the portion of the story I enjoyed reading the most), it’s punctuated with scenes in the real world that largely cover the same ground. Essentially, Jared’s friends try to reach out to him and he brushes them off like a jerk or he fails a maths test and tries to study harder, only to find that the lure of Lavascape is too strong. Unfortunately, neither side of the story really comes to a satisfying conclusion. The Lavascape quest ends with an hurried climax which Jared is largely absent for while the real world portion cuts off on a cliff-hanger, leaving one character’s well-being hanging in the balance. It didn’t even really explain why Jared was undergoing physical changes – these ultimately didn’t really serve any purpose in the story.

The novel’s best aspect is its characterisation, which was very realistic. All of the secondary characters were detailed and possessed noticeably different voices and personalities. However, I did think that they were a little too forgiving of Jared’s addiction. His supposed friends largely turned a blind eye to his unpleasant mood swings and the fact that he lets them down every other day. He even stands up the girl of his dreams on the night of the homecoming dance and all his friends do is frown at him a bit. I think my friends would have given me more of a reality check.

Yet it was Jared himself who I most wanted to kick. Really, how could he have been so dumb? I know that people can get really addicted to just about anything (I, for one, have a dangerous book habit) but how could he really put the well-being a virtual princess over his sister’s very obvious downward spiral into drugs and depression? Or be able to accurately read the emotions of everyone close to him (trolls can apparently do this) except for the girl who is obviously in love with him from about chapter two? I had such little sympathy for Jared that I didn’t really care if he lived or died. While I understood his motivation, it was still difficult to get behind him as a protagonist when he keeps doing such dumb things.

I’m starting to rant again so perhaps this is a good time to wrap up this review. There were a few things I liked about My Life as a Troll – particularly the depth of the supporting cast and the aesthetics of Lavascape – but this was certainly not the novel for me. The themes of the story didn’t speak to me, I found the features of the video game to be unrealistic and Jared’s actions just ground my nerves. If you’re curious I’d say give it a try and see what you think but it’s not a novel that I’d actively recommend.

My Life as a Troll can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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