Demi Harper’s debut at first borrows from and then further develops ideas that (if I’m not mistaken) were first introduced in Dungeon Keeper, the dungeon building video game series originally from the late 90’s. As someone who does a fair amount of gaming, I’m familiar with the gratification this subgenre offers – even if I wasn’t aware of the Dungeon Core subgenre in litRPGs before getting this review copy. Apparently, there’s a growing body of Dungeon Core books and while I can’t speak about any of the others, God of Gnomes captures the essence and gratification of the games.
Our protagonist’s name is Corey, and he's a God Core. A newly discovered one too, exhumed from the depths of the earth by a tiny, ugly creature in the very first chapter of the novel. What the first quarter of the book deals with is much like the tutorial level to any strategy game – Corey has no clue what role she’s fallen into, how to take on her duties as a god to these disgusting, dumb creatures she’s supposed to care for, these gnomes. Thankfully, he’s got a helpful wisp by the name of Ket to show her the ropes! The interaction between Corey and Ket is fun and funny – the wisp is continuously enthusiastic, bright and eager to offer all the information Corey could ever need, and more; the God Core meanwhile is short-tempered and even frightened by this new responsibility he’s suddenly forced into taking on.
There’s a threat inherent to any opening that relies heavily on exposition, especially when that exposition takes on the form of explanation of a character’s abilities and limitations. Like a dungeon builder’s tutorial, there’s always the threat that it’ll drag on, even become tedious. How Demi Harper avoids this is not just through the interaction between Core and wisp; nor is it only because of the disgustingly adorable gnomes that fill these pages. It’s owed in largest part to the fact that Harper introduces a number of compelling mysteries. Our protagonist is entangled in mysteries: the mystery of who, of what Corey was before he awoke in the darkness – flashes of darkness, of cruelty, of a great subterranean city – all draw a fragmentary picture that fellow fantasy nerds might enjoy theorizing on as they read. I did, and I was proved correct! Another mystery has to do with a nasty antagonist lingering in the shadows, taunting our baby Core girl in an unholier-than-thou, third-person, garbage spewing manner. These are but a handful of the different plot threads that caught my attention and imagination both.
What about the relationship between the God Core and its gnomes? We never know what they say to one another, not exactly – the Core doesn’t really understand its denizens’ language because granting what your faithful ask for is not what a God does; it’s a “if you try sometimes, you get what you need” kind of situation our Core and denizens are in. Straightforward communication is out of the way but body language is universal and it speaks loud enough for Corey to get the gist of what’s going on in her Sphere of Influence. From the (initially) socially awkward first Faithful gnome, Gneil, to the ancient taskmaster of a Granny, to a pair of recalcitrant gnomish women whose dislike for Corey is worthy of Malazan marines, the gnome characters are remarkably fun to watch from a bird’s eye view alongside Corey.
One other character deserves mention – Ris’Kin, Corey’s avatar. The avatar’s role is to act as a steppingstone between the God Core and its denizens, a messenger and defender all at once. Ris’Kin is gracious, a two-legged warrior-fox whose elegance is second only to her capacity to sow destruction among Corey’s enemies. She’s also got a great personality! It’s killer, I swear.
Plenty of other interesting elements in this book – Corey possesses the ability to splice different species’ blueprints in order to create god-born creatures, defenders of her Sphere of Influence and the Grotto, the cavern the gnomes call their home. These creatures shine mostly due to Corey’s tendency to anthropomorphize them, naming gigantic spiders such cute and funny names as Blinky and Septimus (What’s an eight-legged spider with a leg missing called?). These god-born shine bright throughout the action sequences.
Combat takes a fair portion of the novel, and the fight scenes are glorious! What's more, there's a fascinating tactical layer to combat that is owed to the unique point of view that comes with being a God Core. However, what I really enjoy about the action above all else is that no element Demi Harper introduces goes unused. In that aspect, God of Gnomes is a masterclass in how to do Chekhov’s gun right.
As the link between the God Core and its Faithful increases, something I thoroughly enjoyed was seeing Corey’s revulsion turn to pride as, under her guidance, the gnomes begin to change, innovate and grow for the first time in untold generations.
I opened this review with the claim that God of Gnomes makes several fantasy tropes feel fresh, and I stand by that. In an age when stories about gnomes and kobolds don’t compel too many readers, Demi Harper has done a stellar job in showing that, through a good enough idea and execution, anything can feel fresh and grip the reader’s imagination.
My score for God of Gnomes is a 9/10, or a 4.5/5 on Goodreads. There were a few moments – not many, just a few, that didn’t quite hold onto my attention as well as the vast majority of the novel did, which is why I’m not giving this a full 5/5 score. Nevertheless, this is a memorable read, a great debut and another solid entry into Portal Books’ growing catalogue of LitRPG/Dungeon Core publications. I’m looking forward to seeing what the publisher comes up with next…and I’m even more excited to find out where Corey’s story goes next!