High-Stakes Adventure in Virtual Reality: My Review of J.A. Cipriano’s LitRPG Novel Soulstone Awakening

A couple weeks ago, I discovered a whole new genre: LitRPG when I ordered a copy of J.A. Cipriano’s Soulstone: Awakening through Kindle Unlimited. J.A. Cipriano is a New York Times bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy fiction, and his novel Soulstone is an action-packed romp through a computer game. That’s right. A computer game!

For those of you unfamiliar with this type of book, allow me to explain the genre. LitRPG stands for Literature Role-Playing Game and it’s all about following fictional characters through a (hopefully) high-immersion, virtual reality ‘world,’ specifically a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. The basic premise has been around for a while. It’s essentially a portal fantasy (something C.S. Lewis popularized with his iconic Chronicles of Narnia series), only it’s a portal to a digital world instead of another planet or dimension. And even this concept isn’t new. Anyone who has seen The Matrix or a few particular episodes of Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Stargate: SG-1 will be familiar with the idea, but… what is new is building an entire genre of literature around not just thrusting yourself into a game world, but around the need to progressively develop your skills, talents, and powers according to game rules and mechanics that characterize RPG or MMO games.

In an MMO RPG game, a new player starts with minimal levels (or stats) in things like strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, charisma, etc. He or she also has little to no money and virtually no skill or ability when it comes to fighting, crafting, trading, or whatever occupations the game offers. The player must start from scratch and systematically build his or her character into a formidable warrior, successful business owner, powerful mage, or whatever. This is what makes the LitRPG genre so entertaining. It puts the literary concept of character development on steroids!

Cipriano’s Soulstone: Awakening is the first of a series of LitRPG novels set in his World of Ruul. His hero, Aaron Hope, is a talented young gamer competing in an MMO player vs. player world championship. After doing exceptionally well, he is lured to a back room by a beautiful reporter and suddenly injected with a hypodermic needle. When he awakens, his brain is in a jar and he’s immersed in a virtual world: Ruul. To get his brain hopefully back into his body, he must win the game. But the stakes are high. He can’t log off, because…well…he no longer has a physical body. And if he dies in-game, his brain is fried. So, he either he wins or he dies.

The reason Aaron is kidnapped and thrown into this virtual world is because…well…he’s good at what he does: playing video and computer games. And the folks behind the Ruul virtual world need him (and the other gamers they kidnapped) to defeat a malevolent computer virus that is somehow tied in with the game. For some reason, the virus (it seems) created the game. Defeating the game means defeating the virus. It’s a forced and somewhat unbelievable premise, but…. as a reader, I am curious as to how things turn out. And in that sense, Cipriano succeeds. After all, the standard for successful pop culture fiction isn’t necessarily scientific accuracy or even highly realistic scenarios. That’s certainly not the case with a genre very much in the fantasy realm. Rather, it’s to capture and entertain the reader. In this, Cipriano succeeds.

So far, I’ve only read the first book in this series. I will plan to pick up the second in a few more weeks. For now, I’m immersed in Travis Bagwell’s LitRPG series Awaken Online (yes, I’m now kind of hooked on the genre! And, yes, a review of Bagwell’s series will be forthcoming).

The one thing I don’t like about Soulstone: Awakening is the language. The cursing and vulgarity are, at times, pretty extreme. And, in virtually every case, completely unnecessary. Granted, I’m a Christian, and this may be my prudish side stepping up, but I generally can handle some language in films and books. In this book, however, most of the bad language is simply unnecessary, and it becomes a distraction and hindrance to an otherwise entertaining story.

Those who enjoy MMO LitRPG novels will likely find much to appreciate in Cipriano’s Ruul series. It may not the best of the genre, but it’s certainly not the worst. I found Soulstone enjoyable, and I’m sure other sci-fi and fantasy readers will as well.