By: Chris Kluwe
Illustrator: Vault49 (Jacket Art)
Release Date: March 3, 2020
Publisher: Tor Books
Received From: Publisher
(All reviews are our own, honest opinions.)
Chris Kluwe’s debut fiction novel, Otaku, hit bookshelves everywhere in March of 2020. Kluwe is a former NFL player, lead designer for the tabletop card game Twilight, and author of a nonfiction collection titled Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies.
Otaku is a science fiction novel set in a dystopian, futuristic Florida, which is now its own small country. The Game, a VRMMO, is everything to Ash. She’s a top player who makes a living playing and streaming The Game. However, it isn’t long before she stumbles onto a conspiracy that must be stopped at all costs.
I love books involving video games. Isekai, stuck-in-a-video-game, futurist VR thrillers, all of it’s wonderful! So you can imagine my excitement when I heard of this one. Unfortunately, my excitement quickly dwindled as I began reading.
Two chapters in, and I was already skeptical. The story opens with the main character, Ash, in the Game with her guild-mates. As they go through end-game content, they get to a room with a dev-controlled boss, which they need to fight and beat to continue. Since it happens so early in the story, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the main character beats it single-handedly. As a gamer myself who’s taken part in special end-game raids and faced off of against dev-controlled bosses…this is utterly ludicrous, completely pulled me out of the story, and I very nearly DNF’d the book right then and there.
If this had been, say, the last big fight in the novel, I would have approached the scene quite differently. But Ash hadn’t yet earned her unbelievably-OP status before it was introduced. Thus what would normally have been a very hyped scene read totally unbelievable instead.
I continued, though, and there were definitely some points worth lauding. The story moves quickly for the most part. When action is happening, the pacing is very fast and quite easy to read. One of the other things Kluwe does very well is explain technical jargon, so much so that I felt he’d be much more at home writing a hard sci-fi, cyberpunk novel rather than the VR thriller he wound up penning.
This leads to one of the books main pitfalls—Ash, the main character. Heavy themes are explored in this book—racism, sexism, how women are treated in gaming, and more. Only the author is in absolutely no way equipped to handle such topics. Having a dystopian setting to convey these issues was very smart idea…that wasn’t utilized at all.
An enormous part of the book is dedicated to how Ash, a mix-race woman, is treated in gaming, social, and political circles. She faces constant harassment and abuse (verbal, physical, and sexual). But both Ash and her attackers don’t feel real. The bad guys rattle of slur after slur like their reading from a script before engaging in over-the-top violence. But Ash doesn’t feel real, either. She never approaches a situation like any woman who’s faced harassment, or more specifically a woman in gaming facing harassment, ever has or will. Honestly, I didn’t even realize Ash was mixed-race until the racial slurs started about 60 pages into the book.
In essence, Ash feels like woman written by a man who never spoke to a woman about their experiences in the gaming sphere, and even more worrisome, never spoke to mixed-race woman in gaming. Ash doesn’t come across as a strong woman. She comes across as a caricature. Most of the book is simply overly gratuitous violence, an unnecessarily long-winded explanation of why what just happened is bad, and then something very similar happening a few pages later.
On top of that, this novel seems to suffer from some extreme first book syndrome. Much of the world building is explained, never shown, but enough is never explained to make the world feel real, lived in, or let us know how Florida turned into its own theocratic country. These sections tend to slow the plot down immensely. They also have the unfortunate side effect of ripping the reader out of the story.
See, most of the explaining is done by Ash to her younger brother. Only her brother is in his late teens and has lived in this society his entire life. There isn’t a reason for him to not understand any of this, and it only serves to make him seem like a moron and completely insufferable before turning downright hate-able.
However, not much of the book is original. Usually this is a-okay with me. I’ll read Tolkien rip-offs until the end of time, after all. But the summary of Otaku can be summed up as: nearly every Sword Art Online story arc stuffed into one book. Honestly? I’d rather just read Sword Art Online.
I wanted to love this book, but sadly, it didn’t hit any of the right buttons. Unfortunately, I can’t really recommend Otaku by Chris Kluwe.