Travis Bagwell’s World of Infinite Possibilities
The appeal of a virtual reality is one that won’t soon be lost on us, especially with the streamlined development of VR gadgets and and gaming. We are slowly but surely moving towards that science-fiction future where humanity spends its time plugged into a system, enacting their wishes and desires in a digital world that can serve as the playground which fulfills all of our fantasies without the repercussions of the real world. While we might be pretty far away from that point at the moment, Travis Bagwell has taken things into his own hands and catapulted us straight into it with his Awaken Online series, with the latest book in it being Awaken Online: Retribution. Just to clarify before we go on to the story, Awaken Online is, within the context of the series, a massive virtual reality game that sucks players in completely and allows them to move within the world and experience it as if they were actually there… and as expected, that world seems to have more drama in it than the real one.
Anyhow, in this latest book Travis Bagwell decides to take us on a bit of a detour as Riley decides to go out on her own to investigate a sort of side quest if you will. The girls at the academy have been teasing her, she has a mysterious bow recovered from a dungeon that needs to be investigated, and the vanished Jason has sent her and Frank and cryptic message. In other words, she has every reason to go out on an adventure, but soon she finds out that it already found her. Unfortunately, the bow’s previous owner has some very macabre plans in store for her, and the fate of an entire city hangs in the balance. As events spiral out of control, Riley realizes just how real this digital world can actually turn out to be.
A word of advice, even though every book in the series can stand on its own and be read separately, I would still encourage you to read the novels in order, the reason being that they involve the same characters and develop them quite extensively over the course of hundreds of pages. However, the stories themselves are generally self-contained and have enough explanations that you won’t feel lost out of the loop, so if you do feel like starting out of order, it’s very much doable.
Virtual Drama Aplenty
I feel like the first thing any book about a virtual world must establish are stakes. After all, if things aren’t actually happening for real, then what reason would you have for feeling concern or fear towards the characters? In the case of Travis Bagwell, he has done this in an interesting fashion. Parts of the book do take place in the real world, and he makes sure to demonstrate how one can seep into the other and affect it. He shows the psychological effects of this virtual reality on the characters, and rarely are things portrayed in an outright black-and-white fashion, at least in the real world. This approach helps us to form a bond with the characters, making us understand that their outings in the virtual world really do have tangible consequences on their psyche.
With that being said, the bulk of the book is indeed spent in virtual reality, where all the actually exciting stuff happens. Once again, the world was depicted in outstanding detail and the author only makes us yearn for more and more of it, which thankfully will be possible considering the limitless nature of the setup. There is always something happening, characters in conflict, malevolent conspiracies brewing, struggles for power… basically a tamer version of what happens in the White House. On the other hand, I found that ultimately, the characters weren’t given the same amount of attention as they were before, especially the new secondary people who just came along for the ride. In turn, that made it harder to care for anyone who wasn’t a main character.
An Unrelenting Story
While in most books series the novels that deviate towards side stories rather than continuing the main course tend to be a bit underwhelming, sometimes even feeling like a desperate cash grab by an equally-desperate author. However, I’m quite glad to say that it isn’t the case here. While at the start it does feel like this adventure will have less importance than the ones that came before it, the feeling vanishes pretty soon as events start unfolding one after the next, never really giving the you the time to stop and think about what kind of adventure you’re going on. Pretty soon you simply get sucked into the story and enjoy it for what it is: an unrelenting quest that will affect the lives of countless players.
Bagwell also takes this opportunity to further develop the characters, so it can even be argued that it has a purpose and relevance in regards to the main storyline. We get to learn a whole lot more about Riley and just how much the game has been bleeding into her real life, and I do hope that in the future Bagwell will follow this model for his side stories, exploring in greater depth the people who really need it. She is a likable protagonist whose quest feels like it has real heft to it, and watching her traverse the seemingly endless trials set before her is nothing short of inspiring.
The Final Verdict
While Awaken Online: Retribution may be a side story to the main books, it remains an extremely enjoyable and solid work of science-fiction, definitely one of the more interesting takes on the virtual world concept. The story, characters and psychological exposition in their worlds are all combined together seamlessly, forming a novel that flows quickly and smoothly, one I highly recommend to sci-fi fans and anyone who wants to see what Travis Bagwell is capable of.
Travis Bagwell is an American writer and attorney from Austin, Texas who has always been impassioned by the “LitRPG” genre and, after running out of reading materials, decided to add some of his own efforts to the genre. His first works turned out to be a series, Awaken Online, and both of the novels in it, Catharsis and Precipice, have received a considerable amount of appreciation and paint a good picture of what to expect in the future.