Ever since his wife died in an accident, elder programmer Finn Harris has been a sullen hermit. But when his daughter browbeats him into trying the new Awaken Online game, he finds himself in a new world, with new challenges, and the favor of an elemental god. What started as a simple quest to get his online passwords back from his well-meaning but mischievous daughter turned into a quest to win a brutal mages’ tournament and a kingdom. For Finn’s connection to Awaken Online runs deeper than he knows, and the elemental god’s quest reward is something he cannot ignore—the return of his wife.
Awaken Online: Ember, by Travis Bagwell, is the first in a side series to Awaken Online, a futuristic litRPG power fantasy that delves into the reasons why people pursue power. While the main series concerns itself more with evil—true evil, not edgy heroes in black or mustache-twirling villains—Ember instead examines curiosity, challenge, and obsession. This is a relief, as the main AO series is a little too good at giving agency to evil. Finn is driven by the need to tinker with and improve upon puzzles, and his puzzle is the linguistic key to Awaken Online’s magic system. And he needs to master it quickly, as he has been thrown into a meatgrinder of an Arena PvP tournament.
Finn is yet another retiree in a recent line of older, more mature, and more experienced litRPG and progression fantasy protagonists. Much of progression fantasy deals with min/maxing a set of existing rules into overwhelming advantages instead of relying on strength. While young power gamers have the drive, age and treachery have their benefits, too. A lifetime of experience offers the ability to perceive more opportunities as well as understand more ways to seize the moment than just force. However, moody widower moving heaven and earth to be reunited with his lost wife is starting to become cliché.
Bagwell manages the delicate balance between game system mechanics and story, minimizing the exposition needed to cover the myriad little progressions Finn makes as he levels up in-game. This allows more focus to be spent on the action in the duels and the various challenges that chivy Finn towards victory. That Finn will win is not in doubt—especially for those who have read the main series—but the journey is where the fun is.