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God of Gnomes by Demi Harper

God of Gnomes by Demi Harper
4.5
Book Name: God of Gnomes
Author: Demi Harper
Publisher(s): Portal Books
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / LitRPG
Release Date: September 11, 2019 (paperback) September 26, 2019 (ebook)

I first heard of LitRPG a little over a year ago—and my understanding extended only so far as it was a genre that in some way combined novelisation with role playing games. However, this was not in the R. A. Salvatore way where Crystal Shards and Halfling’s Gems guide characters through a world totally recognisable as a D&D campaign setting, yet without that intruding explicitly in the story. Nor was it even in the clunky mechanics of an early never to be published draft of my own Lady of the Helm. You could almost hear the D20s clacking over the clash of swords and the whoosh of fireballs in that version as I assiduously (and possibly in breach of copyright) invoked every detail of the Player’s Handbook.

No. In LitRPG the game mechanics are made explicit to the reader, the levelling up, the acquisition of abilities, the taking of damage all appear as flashing sidebars on the screen in which the story takes place. And that always made me wonder how could you tell a decent story—a story in which the reader invests in the characters—when its RPG elements were so intrusive?

Well, in God of Gnomes, I got my answer, a stunningly enthralling tale that had me rooting for gnomes and their reluctant god’s strange hybrid creations.

The book brilliantly blends the addictively enjoyable experiences I had playing such PC greats as Civilisation, The SIMS, Medieval Total War and World of Warcraft with the pleasure I always got from losing myself in a richly imagined alternative reality of fantasy fiction.

Our protagonist, a nameless spirit entity, is rescued from the oblivion of non-existence when the gem housing his soul is dug from the earth and worshipped by a solitary gnome he names Gneil. A Tinkerbell like sprite named Ket hovers close at hand to explain to the hero that he is no longer the living being he once was, instead he has become a God Core—a spirit trapped in a gem—with the power and the duty to oversee and protect the fragile community of Gneil’s fellow gnomes. It is Ket who names the amnesiac protagonist Corey.

The parallels with Medieval Total War and Civilisation are particularly strong as Corey—an unwilling but essentially benign overseer of a budding civilisation—must foster the faith amongst his followers, plan the development of buildings that will enhance the settlement’s ability to grow, and find ways defend the gnomes. Do you remember the moment of first contact playing Civilisation—as you explored the local environment and found Montezuma’s Aztecs on your doorstep. Harper captures—in book form—that excitement of exploration and the trepidation of encountering the people of a neighbouring God Core. Do you remember the attachment you formed with the sturdy Phalanx unit that somehow fought off a succession of Aztec assaults? Again, but more viscerally, Harper’s Corey grows fond of the hybrid creations with which he defends his territory. Do you remember the desperate urge to research and develop in Medieval Total War and Civilisation so as to unlock new technologies and abilities? So too Corey aspires to ascend to the next level of godhood and access more capabilities with which to wreak revenge.

But as skilfully as Harper embeds game elements within her tale, Corey’s journey is just as much a story in itself. Both he and Ket have a past they struggle to recall or are eager to forget and looking back I have to admire the subtlety of Harper’s foreshadowing—the clues she planted in broad daylight, the intricate web I should have seen through well before a rival God Core spilled the beans and in so doing sent Corey into a near terminal existential angst.

The nature of LitRPG makes it hard to start in medias res, there is some explaining to be done before we can get to the action and I had been warned this can make these books a slow start. Those of us used to the worldbuilding inherent in fantasy fiction still know infodumps are best avoided, but that can be hard when—in addition to the world—there are some essential game mechanics that need to be revealed. However, I have to say, God of Gnomes still starts well and builds quickly—the discombobulation of Corey and then his mentoring by Ket take us speedily into the key dilemmas for Corey and his initially unpromising gnomish followers.

My daughter, at the age of nine or so, found playing The SIMS a particularly traumatic experience, particularly when she had accidentally set one of her Sims on fire. She was so invested in this fiction of pixels and bytes, that she actually cried. Corey—and the reader too—quickly become invested in Gneil and Granny and the other misnamed gnomes with their misgnomed names, like Swift and Cheery. Along with the choice of buildings Corey has decisions to make about the allocation of gnomic professions, always with more options available at higher levels of godhood. But his gnomes, like the Sims are always capable of autonomous actions—even if their attempts to communicate with Corey are scarcely more intelligible than the cryptic hieroglyphs with which distressed Sims were wont to hail my neglectful children.

Harper deftly blurs the boundary between game and story in a way I had not expected from my previous very limited experience of LitRPG. Light relief and a bit of digression arrives with a party of humans blundering through the subterranean passages between Corey’s domain and his rival Grimrock’s. In so doing they incidentally merge the game concepts of Corey’s world with the more familiar domain of Dungeons and Dragons-style roleplaying.

Corey and Ket make an entertaining couple—the sharp clashes between mismatched mentor and mentee are up there with Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, Mork and Mindy, as Ket tries to lead Corey through a world he struggles to understand and away from the secrets buried in both their pasts.

Harper’s writing has a light touch and a seasoning of humour that makes the first-person portrayal of Corey feel very rounded.

“I was a rock, which was, by definition, structurally rigid. ‘Tense’ was my new natural state.”

“I couldn’t remember my actual name, but I was fairly certain it was probably something much more majestic and obscure; something many-syllabled, surely and containing at least three apostrophes.”

One might almost think Harper had Malazan book of the fallen in mind when she wrote that line!

There is one other work this put me in mind of: “The Defence of Duffer’s Drift”, a seminal work of the tactics of defence written around the time of the Boer War, where a young subaltern relives in dream form six successive failures to defend a vital position, but learns and improves each time until eventually he finds a hard won success.

Harper captures that same tactical planning followed by a gritty immersion in the desperation of hand to hand combat—not to mention whip to flesh, fireball to web, chitin to axe, and sword to mushroom combat. I still remember one Medieval Total War battle where my careful selection of terrain enabled my small but perfectly balanced force to hold out against a vastly superior foe. I remember flicking with godlike speed from position to position as I tried to micromanage every detail of my tiny army’s actions. Corey’s battles carried me back to that moment and reminded me that games can make their own stories, and in this example of LitRPG the two have combined triumphantly.

Harper’s triumph in the challenge of this (new to me) LitRPG format is to give us people and a story we care about. God of Gnomes is a satisfyingly complete tale that amply meets that end, but in an epilogue, Harper points the way to new troubles ahead and the potential for a gripping sequel. Sign me up for a pre-order now.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Laura Hughes says:

    Thanks so much for this stunning review, Theo! 😀

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