Damien is sixteen years old, and lives with his mum in a world that’s got more than a hint of dystopia to it. He’s been enormously lucky getting to test a new VR headset for Moebius, the corporation behind online juggernaut Saga Online. On the night that everything goes to hell, Damien is asked by his Moebius handler Kevin to test a new enemy during a livestream; little does he know that the livestream in question exposes him to thousands of viewers, all inspired by the flippant behaviour he shows towards the horrifying new enemy boss rampaging towards him. What should’ve been a moment of triumph turns horrible when Damien gets into a colossal fight with his mum; everything turns worse yet when after the fight, she collapses and nearly dies from her heart condition. The resulting turmoil sees her waiting in line for a heart transplant with little chance of getting it before her condition proves fatal. The only alternative is a bionic heart – but these are prohibitively expensive. A desperate plan hatches in Damien’s head at this point – if he can win the Saga Online Streamer Competition, he’d get a hundred thousand dollars, more than enough for his mother’s medical expenses! Easy enough, right?
Well, maybe not. Through a number of unexpected bumps, Damien ends up at the very bottom of a dungeon, forced to accept the occultist class as his own, on the blank new character he’s been forced to create following the ridiculous amount of clones his livestream has borne into existence!
Noigel, Damien’s most important summon, and the only one with personality to speak of, was a delightful treat that could’ve played out much more annoying if not for the restraint his more impish personality traits are used with. Interactions between him, Damien and Bartholomew are nothing short of laugh-out-loud hilarious and a highlight of the writing and dialogue. Speaking of Bartholomew, now here’s an NPC (non-player character) that I want to see in a game! A vampire that’s equal parts snarky and brutal, Bartholomew is an entertaining and horrifying master and teacher to Damien, with an attitude towards him that can best be described as “Make the best of what you’ve got, no matter how fleshy, wormy and annoying what you’ve got is.” It was a pleasure to see this relationship evolve.
There’s one further character who is a major help to Damien in his hour of need, but I’d be getting into spoiler territory if I were to disclose too much about her. Let’s just say that she’s a hammer-swinging badass whose unique insight into the man we’ll next talk about is instrumental to Damien’s survival.
I’m particularly pleased with the antagonist, Aetherius. We’ve all met conceited assholes on the internet, the sort of ‘edgelords,’ as I believe Damien himself calls him, the type that build up a false image of themselves that’s alluring to the outside eye but prone to crack eventually. Aetherius is the kind of guy you’ll love to hate and will eagerly wait to get his comeuppance. On the true-and-tested scale of Umbridge-to-Voldemort, he’s definitely the sort of villain that’s easy to hate not because he’s inhuman and anathema to everything we, the readers, hold dear but because he exhibits all those aspects of ourselves we work hard not to fall into the habit of – pettiness, personal advancement over the welfare of others, the propensity to kick people when they’re down with a smile plastered on…among others! Suffice to say, wonderful job on creating someone I came not only to dislike but actively hate.
On the topic of worldbuilding: excellent job both within the game and outside. Saga Online seems like a vast game with a lot happening in it but rather than spending time to reveal every little detail of the virtual world, author Oliver Mayes never forgets whose headspace he’s in. Damien’s race against time only ever allows him to interact with a limited part of Saga Online’s world, and there’s no unnecessary introduction of elements of it that never come into play.
Not much was revealed about the real world, other than the fact that citizens are placed in different credit brackets according to their earnings (or that’s what I got), and that Damien and his mom are at the low end of this system, which explains why her heart hasn’t been replaced by a bionic ticker, as is the prerogative of the rich. As with Saga Online, we never get much of an in-depth explanation as to the state of the overarching world. That makes sense – Damien, our focalizer, is a sixteen-year-old boy. He’s been born in this world, and he takes it as is. Whatever we see through his eyes is instantly believable, and his world feels very much real.
I was pleased to discover that the game mechanics of Saga Online were explained in a clear and succinct manner. Further, to an MMORPG/RPG player like myself, they came across as familiar enough to be intuitive while also different enough from existing games to prove intriguing and capture the interest. If there’s one compliment I could give Saga Online above all others, it’s this: I legitimately wish this game existed in a VR generation or three from now. Reading about it was like reading the diary of a particularly eloquent World of Warcraft role-player…only, the gameplay of Saga Online sounds more fun in several orders of magnitude. Granted, there are some questions that would need clearing up about balancing boss fights and changing up dungeon design, maybe even an explanation into how damage works in broader terms – but now I’m thinking like a game designer and not a book reviewer.
Just like in real MMOs and RPGs, each class’ abilities are clearly defined – including those of the occultist. Working through these closely limited boundaries, Damien’s tactical mind shines. Though at first I was somewhat sad I wouldn’t be getting an occultist casting high-damage intelligence spells, the accent on controlling a small army of minions (that only grows as Damien progresses to a higher level) quickly grabbed me. To all my fellow gamers, lemme just say, some Diablo 2 Necromancer flashbacks were to be had!
The number of different applications Damien finds for his abilities, the way he deploys his minions –there are five different types of them, each more impressive than the last – and his proclivity towards preparing the most delightfully sneaky of ambushes, traps and backstabs brings about a number of really well-written combat sections.
What I could complain about – and this isn’t that big of an issue, really – is that the events that lead to Damien being an occultist are maybe a little bit too neat. On account of how quick it all happens though, that really was a non-factor for me. This ‘neatness’ does continue once or twice more, later on in the novel when one important character finds themselves in the exact spot where they could check in on Damien’s mother. I can chalk it up to good luck but some readers might find this slightly annoying.
To conclude this overlong review, I trust I’ve done a good job of explaining why I had an absolute blast reading Oliver Mayes’ Occultist. This book appealed to me not just as a reader but also as a gamer, and I am looking forward to more of it.
My score for this novel is:
- The Prose: 7.5/10 – to me, a score of ’seven’ and above here implies perfectly serviceable, good prose that has few to no issues. It won’t woo you with complex, beautiful language but it serves to tell a wonderful story.
- Pacing: 9/10
- Main Character & Supporting Cast: 10/10Antagonist: 4.5/5
- Action: 5/5
- Worldbuilding: 4/5
- Personal Enjoyment: 5/5
All this translates to a score of 4.5 out of 5, or a 9 out of 10! If you care about that sort of thing.
TL;DR: Occultist is an excellent, solid read that I have an easy time recommending to any of the following:
- Gamers looking for a really fun read;
- litRPG fans;
- People who want to see assholes on the internet get their comeuppance;
- YA readers;
- Anyone looking for a read on the lighter side of fantasy, but also capable of enjoying the occasional toe-dipping in darker topics;
- And More! Prob’ly.
I’d like to thank publisher Portal Books for approaching me and offering a free copy of the novel in return for an honest review.