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Monday, May 21, 2018

A Janitor Becomes King: My Review of Adam Drake's LitRPG Series Kingdom

Robert Barron is a widower and night-shift janitor. Still grieving the loss of his wife, the 52-year old cares only about his grown daughter, Anika, and wants to keep the rest of his life as free of stress as possible. And that’s why he traded in the corporate life in favor of cleaning office buildings. With little to no professional ambition left, Rob just wants to live in peace and enjoy as much time with his daughter as he can. Unfortunately for Rob, unseen forces have other plans for him. And the night-shift janitor finds himself running (and defending) a kingdom!

Simple and straightforward, Adam Drake’s Kingdom series is yet another contribution to the increasingly popular LitRPG genre (aka GameLit genre). A subset of fantasy and science fiction, LitRPG is all about following a character or set of characters as they progress through a virtual reality game setting.

Drake’s Kingdom series isn’t as heavy into the game mechanics as some other LitRPG novels, and his stories are much shorter. I've been able to zoom through each book of the series (at least those thus far released) rather quickly. While not necessarily superficial, the Kingdom series is not deep. The stories are straightforward. Most of it is hack-and-slash with some hand-wringing and angst thrown in for good measure. The books could also use some additional editing. There were several typographical errors and spelling issues. But the premise is compelling (if highly unbelievable) and I do care about the main character. And that’s what has kept me going through this series.

Most LitRPG stories follow a young protagonist who is a talented, experienced gamer in real life. Not so with Kingdom. Drake’s protagonist, Rob, is older and much less experienced as a gamer. And this is seen numerous times as Rob makes quite a few rookie mistakes.

This is not a Christian fantasy series. That of course is no problem for many of my readers, but since a large portion of my reading audience identifies as Christian, I feel I should point this out. That Kingdom isn’t Christian is made clear by the language, by an early description of the main character’s attitude toward religion, and by the polytheistic nature of the game world. And while the latter would normally be taken with a grain of salt (we are talking about fantasy after all), the premise of the series itself is still not fully defined - at least not so far. Is the game world real? Is it man made? It’s clearly a game, given its mechanics, but it somehow is more than just a game. For one, it had the ability – via its “gods” – to reach into the real world and abduct Rob. For my own part, I can easily suspend disbelief and not take fantasy stories like this seriously. But some of my Christian readers may have a different perspective. Aside from a little language, though, the stories are fairly clean.

Some have criticized Drake's Kingdom books for being "hack writing" (and I'm sure some litrpg / gamelit aficionados will criticize me for including it on this list), but the truth is.... I've enjoyed this series despite Kingdom‘s shortcomings. I've read all four parts (Levels 1-4) so far, and can't wait until Kingdom: Level Five. And I’m looking forward to the next installment.

If you’re a part of Kindle Unlimited and like LitRPG, I encourage you to give the Kingdom series a try.

Friday, May 18, 2018

An Alchemist Takes on a Bully and Wannabe King: My Review of the LitRPG novel Unwritten Rules

A physically disabled young man experiences newfound purpose and excitement in a virtual reality game world when he confronts an arrogant bully posing as a king. That’s the premise behind Adam Horne’s enjoyable LitRPG novel Unwritten Rules.

While in college, Kevin’s life took a tragic turn when a car struck him and left his body paralyzed. Two years later and still deeply depressed, Kevin is given the opportunity to play a revolutionary computer game – an immersive MMORPG (massive multi-player online role-playing game) called Genesis Online. It’s a game backed by a ground-breaking, state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI). He soon finds himself reborn (or at least reimagined) as Kelath, a rogue adventurer in an exciting medieval fantasy world.

Kelath’s excitement turns to anger and frustration when he runs smack into a corrupt guild ruled by a wannabe king named Itrix. The guild, Noblesse Oblige, seeks to dominate all of the Genesis world through extortion, violence, and intimidation. Kelath and his friends must rally together, form their own guild, and fight for the freedom of Genesis.

If you don’t like fantasy stories or role-playing games, you probably won’t enjoy Unwritten Rules. But, in my case, I found Unwritten Rules to be rather entertaining. The first few pages may be a little slow for some, but it gets you into the main character pretty well. Then, when he puts on the gaming gear, the LitRPG story gets going and draws you in. It’s not as heavy on the LitRPG elements as some other novels in this genre, but the story and characters are pretty well fleshed out. Horne definitely succeeds in getting you to root for Kelath and his friends.

The initial premise may be troubling to some. On the surface, it may suggest to some that disabled individuals lack purpose, and need something like the fictional MMO in Unwritten Rules to give them purpose. As someone who has a mentally challenged sister and who has worked with members of the disabled community (both as a pastor and, several years ago, on my county’s Disability Services Board), the value and dignity of persons with disabilities is an important issue for me. Nevertheless, as sensitive as some readers might be to the story’s premise, it is not the author’s intention to suggest that those with disabilities need virtual reality to give them purpose. The author is simply laying out the story of this one character, Kevin, and letting us go on a journey with him. When I reached out to the author on this subject, he was happy to confirm this. As he explains, “What Kevin needed most in his life was a way to feel like he was contributing, and that could have been done in any number of ways: a job, volunteering, outreach programs to mentor other people with disabilities. That’s what I saw as his purpose, and the game was the perfect tool to help him achieve it.” (My full Q&A interview with the author will be published in a few days.)

I plan to continue with this series. And if you at all like fantasy and/or RPG games, I suggest you give Unwritten Rules a try.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Are Magicians Demonic? Magic and Christianity

The other day I watched a video where Justin Flom, a well-known magician and believer in Jesus Christ, was responding to critics alleging that he was using demonic power to perform his magic tricks and illusions. (The video is titled “I am not a demon!” You can watch it here). At first, I thought this must be the case of a few off-the-wall critics. I was mistaken. Digging a little further, I found numerous websites, blog posts, and a bunch of YouTube videos – many with a staggering number of views – arguing quite strongly that magicians (including Christian magicians like Flom) were either intentionally or inadvertently consorting with demons to pull off their feats of trickery and illusion.

It should (sadly) come as no surprise that, just as many Christians brand all fantasy literature and entertainment as demonic, they do the same with performers who entertain with magic tricks. Yes, many Christians believe that when a magician performs at a children’s birthday party, he or she is channeling demonic spirits. It’s sad that I have to write an article addressing this, but I do.

Christians sometimes believe crazy things. Stupid things. This is unfortunate because Christians should be among the most sober-minded, thoughtful, and intellectually robust people on the planet. Yet I’ve found that too many Christians rely on emotion, personal experience, preferences, or “my pastor said…” when it comes to formulating their beliefs.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dismissing Satan and demons as fiction. I believe in God, Jesus, the angels, Satan, demons, heaven, hell, the Bible, and all that. I’m also not totally discounting personal experience, nor am I saying we shouldn’t listen to our pastors. (After all, I myself am a pastor. And what kind of a pastor would I be if said that?). But the Apostle Paul says that we are to “test all things” and “hold fast” to what is “good” (I Thessalonians 5:21). We aren’t supposed to just turn off our brains, “drink the Kool-Aid” (so to speak), and then parrot whatever we hear in church or from other Christians. We are to think, to study, to investigate. This article is written in that spirit.

Of course, if you're reading this blog and you don’t believe in God, you’re going to find this discussion foolish. Feel free to skip. But if you believe in God and have a healthy respect for the Bible, I hope this will be of some help to you.

Let’s acknowledge that over the course of human history, many practitioners of "magic" have indeed consorted with dark forces - or tried to. Some have worshiped pagan gods. This was certainly the case with Pharaoh’s magicians as recorded in the book of Exodus. Some, over the years, have dabbled with or immersed themselves in the occult or in Satanism outright. This is even the case in our time.

One of today’s magicians (who I won’t name) openly boasts of engaging in satanic rituals and communicating with demons. When I saw the video on YouTube, I thought it was a joke. Nope. It was no joke. This guy really is a Satanist and calls himself a practitioner of “black magic.” Other magicians, while not outright Satanists, are very much into tarot card readings, spirit guides, and all kinds of other deeply troublesome practices and beliefs. As but one example, an America’s Got Talent contestant from a few seasons back spoke openly about his spirit guide named Desmond. Spirit guides are a fairly common element in New Age practice.

The Bible is clear that those of us who follow God should stay away from spirit guides, mediums, sorcery, the occult, demons, etc. That’s what the Mosaic Law forbids (Deuteronomy 18:10-13) and what Peter condemned when he confronted Simon the sorcerer in Samaria (Acts 8:14-25). It stands to reason then that any magician who associates himself or herself with (or endorses, in any way) these things (spirit guides, mediums, occult practices, etc) should be avoided. I’m 100% in agreement with Christians who say we should avoid those kinds of magicians. However…

The vast majority of entertainment magicians today are NOT actual sorcerers.

It pains that I actually had to write that sentence, but it’s worth repeating. The overwhelming majority of magicians today are not sorcerers. They are simply entertainers. There are indeed some entertainers we’re better off avoiding, while others are very worthwhile. But to assume all or most magicians today are either secret agents of or dupes of Satan is grossly unfair and utterly ridiculous.

There’s nothing sinister or supernatural going on when the vast majority of magicians work their magic tricks. Their tricks and illusions, while impressive and often mind-boggling, are a combination of craftiness of design, misdirection, and technology. To argue that such a magician is a sorcerer is like saying Henry Cavill is really Superman.

If anyone doubts me, I challenge you to do just a little digging for yourself. There are countless books on magic available to read, many magic tricks for sale all over the Internet (including eBay), and numerous videos on YouTube that reveal the secrets behind some of the most popular illusions and magic tricks. Check it out yourself. Anyone with the ability to think (at all) will quickly surmise from all those books, videos, and tricks for sale that magic today is, for the most part, harmless entertainment.

Not only are most magicians harmless entertainers, but many of them are openly Christian. Justin Flom and his colleagues in the Fellowship of Christian Magicians (yes, there’s an organization for Christian magicians) regularly use their magic skills to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yes, we should be careful when it comes to the world of entertainment (whether we’re talking about magic shows or fantasy literature). But let’s not become a knee-jerk critic either. Don’t assume the worst about people or find yourself believing a demon lurks behind everything you don’t understand or which you find disconcerting. Instead…

Be informed. Be rational. Be discerning.

How sad that so many Christians today, rather than appreciate the work of Christian magicians like Flom, instead condemn them as demonic charlatans. In so doing, they tear down their own, divide the Christian community, and make Christians everywhere look foolish. We’re better than that. Let’s act like it.

********

You might also want to check out my articles on fictional magic in fantasy movies and literature…

“Christianity and Fantasy: Is it Wrong to Read Fantasy Literature?”

Thursday, May 3, 2018

An Interview With Christian Fantasy and Sci-Fi Author James Somers

James Somers is an ordained Baptist pastor, surgical technologist, and Christian fantasy novelist. Quite the combination. And some might say there is at least one contradiction in that biographical statement. How can a Bible-believing Christian (and a pastor, no less) read and write fantasy fiction? Well, who better to help us deal with that question than the man who is, in fact, blending biblical truth with fantasy fiction? I’m honored to interview Christian author James Somers for this blog.

Side Note: The original interview was conducted a few years ago for a different blog (now defunct), and has been updated and provided here.

Brian Tubbs (BT): Thank you for taking the time to “sit down with me” (digitally at least ?? ) for this interview. Most Christians take their faith seriously and want to serve the Lord. And yet they also want to enjoy life and that means they want to enjoy some of what we would call “worldly entertainment.” And that means making choices, and that’s where you come in. Thank you for taking part in this interview and offering us some of your wisdom. 

James Somers (JS): I’ll do my best, Brian.

BT: You’re a Christian and an ordained pastor. And you would be the first to say that Jesus Christ is the most important person in your life. When did you confess Christ as your Lord and Savior? And when did you feel God’s call into pastoral ministry?

JS: I repented of my sins and received Christ as my savior in March of 1996, after attending church with my soon-to-be wife. My family never raised me in church. I had visited only a few times before and had an experience with a youth pastor where I basically got cornered in his office for not raising my hand during an invitation. He led me down the “Romans Road” and I answered every question with one goal in mind: how to get out of his office as fast as possible. I was told that I got saved, but I had no idea what that meant and I knew nothing had actually happened to me. I didn’t care about my soul then.

Later, when I had an ear to hear what the Lord had to say to me, I realized my lost condition and put my faith in Christ. I think sometimes we ministers are too eager to give someone assurance of salvation. The Lord will assure them if they really get saved. Our job is to distribute his Word as witnesses.

I felt the Lord leading me into the ministry in January of 2000 after I had spent about a year teaching teenagers in Sunday School.

BT: You’re also, as we said before, a fantasy novelist. Maybe not at the level of C.S. Lewis (yet) or George R.R. Martin or Raymond Feist, but you’re definitely on your way. When did you start writing science fiction and fantasy? And how many books have you had published to this point?

JS: I’m nowhere near any of those guys, Brian. And as for Martin, I’ll steer clear of the kind of fantasy that includes perversion like I found in my failed attempt to read Game of Thrones.

BT: I agree with you about Martin.

JS: I began writing my first novel in 1996 as a diversion to take my mind off of the stress of college…a way to relax. It began as a Star Wars story just for fun. When I got to about 150 pages, I decided to go back and use the characters in a story of my own. Chronicles of Soone came from that story. I’ve since published over a dozen novels. Other than Chronicles of Soone (published through Breakneck Books), I’ve utilized Amazon’s Kindle Publishing exclusively — and love it!

BT: When it comes to entertainment in general, I think of something I read recently by John MacArthur, a very well-known pastor and theologian. Dr. MacArthur says that, as Christians, our worldview is (or at least should be) based on the “reality” of God’s world, His Truth, and His revelation. And that, by contrast, the “world of entertainment is not real.” That it is, in fact, about “escaping from reality.” While he stops short of saying it’s a sin for Christians to watch TV, read fiction, and so forth, he is certainly raising a red flag when it comes to people allowing their worldview to be influenced by imagination and entertainment. Do you agree that this is an important cause for concern?

JS: I would agree that we must always be careful with our thought life. It can be easily influenced. However, I also believe that a mature believer can recognize what’s real and not real. Is it a lie to tell someone a story, if they fully understand that it is fiction? A lie is an intent to deceive. That’s not what fiction is. It’s meant to engage the reader and entertain.

Consider that Christ used many parables to explain complicated truth to those who heard him. Parables are simple stories. They were not necessarily real events or intended to be. They were stories with a point. A story can also have a good message to be understood as well. Was Paul condemning the Olympic type games when he used them as examples of fighting the good fight, running the race and winning a crown of righteousness? I don’t think so. Yet those games are pointless entertainment.

At the same time, I don’t think we should take pleasure in unrighteousness. We are to meditate on what is good.

However, clearly there are serious descriptions of evil in the Bible. Is describing evil as evil in a story sinful, if it’s not sinful to talk about it in the Bible as fact. It’s a matter of perspective and motive. Are you promoting wickedness or describing it with the understanding that it is wrong? My novels describe evil characters as what they are. Some are redeemable human characters…others are angelic and unsaveable. I try to approach them the same way the Bible does. A wicked man can be saved. But an angel cannot. That’s truth. I don’t contradict what the Bible says is truth, not even for a fiction story.

BT: As you know, many Christian parents are very uncomfortable with their kids reading fantasy novels or watching sci-fi movies or playing any kind of computer games that feature wizards, witches, necromancers, or any of that sort of thing. Of course, Christians run the gamut on these things. The Old Testament obviously forbids, under penalty of death, anyone having anything to do with witches, contacting the dead, etc. And both the Old and New Testaments teach that light has no fellowship with darkness and that we, as Christians, are to not love the world or the things of the world. In light of these things, what are some general guidelines or principles that Christians should keep in mind when it comes to their entertainment choices?

JS: Obey the scriptures. I would say, however, there’s a big difference between describing something in a story and promoting that evil thing or action as being good. Are witches good? No. Is necromancy good? No. Is murder good? No. Is Fornication/adultery good? No. Are these things all discussed and described in the Bible? Yes! Does that make God’s Word wicked? No. In the light of Scripture, these things have their rightful place…they are discussed, but also condemned as wrong. I’ve never seen more idolatry than when studying the Scriptures, descriptions of terrible murders and evil things…yet, they are cast in the appropriate light as being wrong and condemned by God.

A fiction story or movie or whatever can cast these same things in the appropriate light as being evil and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem in our day is that Evil is called Good & Good is called Evil…that’s the problem with much of our entertainment today.

BT: Let’s take some specific concerns and questions and apply some of what you said to each of them. Is it a sin to read fantasy?

JS: It is not a sin to read fantasy…but it would be a sin to read something that encourages you to have sinful thoughts. I mentioned Game of Thrones earlier. Game of Thrones has some sexual stuff going on that is wicked and descriptive to the point that your fleshly mind will begin thinking things it should not. When I got to this in the book, I realized I couldn’t keep reading it. To say someone committed incest is not the same as describing the ordeal for the reader. The Bible speaks of incest between Lot and his two daughters after the destruction of Sodom…it does not describe the matter in any sort of detail for us.

It would also be sinful to agree with the views of any fictional story or movie that contradict God’s word or which disavow God’s principles. You might, as a preacher, study false religions in detail, their views of God and Salvation, etc…they are false. Is that sinful? No. What would be sinful is to agree with them against the Bible…to change our view from truth to a lie because of what we read. That could happen with fantasy, or anything else you read or watch or listen to.

BT: Is it a sin to watch Star Wars? We know that Star Wars has a lot of Buddhist and New Age influences behind it. Should Christians stay away from the Jedi, the Force, and all things Star Wars?

JS: Again, you might read or watch Star Wars and have no problem understanding that it’s make-believe and carries a false view. However, if you start dressing like a Jedi and claiming to be one with the Force, you’ve probably got a big problem. You might think I’m being funny…well sort of. But there are people who believe in the Force.

Have you ever read the beliefs of Scientology? It’s all science fiction: waystation on Mars, Thetans and stuff…pure sci-fi. But it’s now a religion.

That brings me to the question: is it wrong to consider other views in the world?

We are surrounded with all manner of beliefs in the world. God never said to shut our eyes or ears to the world around us…however we are called to believe the TRUTH, and not LIES. Can I watch Star Wars and believe the truth, and not be deceived by false views? I can. Can you?

Paul’s concerns about things sacrificed to idols comes to mind…he said, it’s not sinful to eat that meat, because an idol is nothing in reality. The god behind it doesn’t even exist. But the perception of others when you ate that meat was a problem. You could become a stumbling block. If you’re grounded in truth, watch Star Wars and understand it’s not the truth. It’s just entertainment. It’s fairly wholesome and has a message about good vs. evil that makes easy sense. Talk about it with your kids…let them know what’s not true. Help them understand.

BT: How about Harry Potter?

I’m going to end up repeating myself on these because they all have the same issues. Is witchcraft good? Nope. Absolutely not. There is no such thing as White Witchcraft either. Anything that promotes or encourages witchcraft is bad. We should stay away from it.

The problem I think is misunderstood about Harry Potter is that it doesn’t present a form of witchcraft described by the Bible. Harry Potter treats magic like a natural power inherited from parents. It treats it like the force in Star Wars frankly, which is not what witchcraft is at all. Witchcraft, Wicca, etc…is a religion and practice that involves consorting with demonic spirits (even when the witch doesn’t realize this) in order to do what they hope to accomplish.

The biggest problem with Harry Potter is that children may not get the difference, because it is called “witchcraft” in the story. If this is seen positively and then explored by them as they grow up, they’ll find something entirely different from Harry Potter, but they could become entangled in it before realizing.

BT: Is it a sin to play World of Warcraft or Dungeons & Dragons?

Same answer here also…we must be grounded in truth because we are faced with all manner of beliefs in this world. Is it a sin to send your children to public school where they will be drenched in Evolution? No, but it would be a sin to allow those teachings to go unchallenged in our homes…we must be grounded in truth and help our children and others to be grounded also.

BT: Other than your own books (which I do highly recommend – without reservation), what are some other authors or works that you’d suggest Christians check out?

Wayne Batson has some good fantasy novels. There’s also Jonathan Rogers. And I also enjoyed the Mistborn series quite well by Brandon Sanderson.

BT: Any closing thoughts for parents especially?

Ground yourselves and your children in the Word of God. Understand the truth and it will protect you from the lies we encounter in the world everyday. The world is drenched in lies…fiction is seen as entertainment primarily. While it can influence people to false beliefs, I think this is only the case when people aren’t discerning about those beliefs. If you don’t know something is false, you might believe it. If you don’t know the truth of God’s Word, you are more likely not to recognize those false views.

If a Mormon came to your house claiming Christ as the way, you might believe he knew the Biblical Christ if you hadn’t studied the word. But when you do, you realize that Mormon believes in a false Christ made up by men. Which Jesus are you talking about?…you’ll only know when you find him described by God’s Word. The same goes for all of our views as Believers. We should believe and follow what God says is true. We should not believe what contradicts God’s word.

The truth can make us free…but only if we are grounded in it! Can I read Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion? Many Christian pastors have studied this book. Are they swayed by it? Not if they are grounded in truth. They recognize and identify the lies in it, and remain grounded in truth. That’s an extreme example. Can I watch a dinosaur movie and not be made into an Evolutionist by watching it? Sure I can, and I’ll even discuss where it’s wrong on Creation with my kids in the process.

BT: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I know you’re a busy man, but your wisdom will help a lot of my readers, I know.

JS: I hope it’s helpful. Thanks for having me over (digitally that is).

*****

For more on James Somers, check out his blog and his Author Page at Amazon.

You can also check out my take on this subject atChristianity and Fantasy: Is it Wrong to Read Fantasy Literature?

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A Devoted Husband Struggles to Save His Wife via a Dark Virtual Reality Game: My Review of Stan Faryna's Dystopian Novella Francesco Augustine Bernadone

Stan Faryna’s Francesco Augustine Bernadone: A Brief History of Our Tomorrows centers on an 80-year old Italian named Francesco as he desperately seeks to finance his wife’s cancer treatments, battles multiple sclerosis himself, and struggles to hold onto any work he can. All in a bleak world devoid of much happiness and hope. Francesco’s selfless devotion to his ailing wife, Clare, is about the only bright spot in the dark dystopian story world painted by the author.

Francesco Augustine Bernadone is the first of a planned series of novellas set several years into an imagined future where the Dollar and Euro have collapsed, and western society has plunged into a gritty existence of unemployment, poverty, struggle, and despondency. To escape this grim reality, people are buying their way into a virtual reality game called Jacob’s Ladder. The massively multiplayer role-playing game (MMORPG) is, in many ways, even darker than the real world itself. Yet, for those few who can survive for any length of time, Jacob’s Ladder promises possible windfalls of cash that can help better their condition in the real world. When Francesco is laid off from the last of his three part-time jobs, he is a man with few prospects. He decides to give Jacob’s Ladder a try.

Faryna does a great job creating a highly immersive story world and drawing the reader into it. And then…before you know it, you’re plugged into an online, virtual game world as well. Both worlds – the dystopian world in which the characters live and breathe as well as the MMO game world – are convincingly described.

The novella is difficult to classify as it crosses genre lines. Broadly speaking, it’s certainly within the science fiction umbrella, but there are elements of horror, fantasy, LitRPG / GameLit, and spirituality as well. That breadth is a reflection of the story's author. Stan Faryna is an author, blogger, gamer, successful entrepreneur, technology expert, and an online strategist. He’s done business extensively both in the United States as well as Europe. He studied philosophy in college before drifting into the IT arena and entrepreneurship. He counts gardening as among his hobbies, and is strong in his Christian faith.

The story jumps around a bit. It doesn’t actually begin with Francesco, but with a woman named Penny and then her son Roberto. Just as you get attached to one character, especially at the beginning, it jumps you to another. He also plays with chronology a bit (as many authors do), but this (combined with the character-jumping) can make things a little confusing at times.

The characters are, however, well developed – especially Francesco. Faryna’s world-building is quite good. The settings are compelling. The game world is believable. And he does a great job setting up contrasts and ironies within the story as well as dropping in symbols and what some call “Easter eggs” to make readers think. And…Faryna encourages the reader to confront some worthy questions, like how much one should compromise or sacrifice for a noble end.

The story is darker than what I normally like, but I still give it high marks due to the quality of the writing and the importance of the themes that Faryna causes the reader to confront. For these reasons, if you’re an adult (or at least a mature teenager) and can handle some darker elements in your reading, I recommend you give Francesco Augustine Bernadone a try.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Become a Knight in Medieval Times and Fight With King Arthur: My Review of Galen Wolf's Camelot Overthrown

If you’ve ever pictured yourself as a knight in King Arthur’s Camelot, Galen Wolf’s latest LitRPG novel may be just for you. LitRPG novels are of course all about following a character or set of characters as they progress through a virtual reality game setting. In Camelot Overthrown, Wolf turns his attention to knights and chivalry and churns out a virtual reality manifestation of medieval England. The prolific LitRPG author invites his readers to follow a young Level 1 up-and-comer named Gorrow on his quest for wealth and glory.

All is not well, however. Gorrow must climb from poverty to wealth and from obscurity to fame in the midst of a war-torn world. The forces of evil (and they are thoroughly evil – more on this in a moment) are sweeping across the land and closing in on Camelot, the kingdom’s main bastion of freedom and hope. Wolf’s game world allows players to join King Arthur and fight against evil — or align with evil and seek to overthrow Arthur’s fabled Camelot. Gorrow and his friends choose the former, and readers are treated to the delight of meeting (and fighting alongside) the legends of Camelot, including Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, and Arthur himself.

Wolf isn’t afraid to play up cliches. The baddie of all baddies in this novel is named… wait for it… Satanus. Wolf actually incorporates quite a few Christian concepts into his novel, making them part of the game. Not only can a character drink a health potion to heal (a common trope in role-playing games and LitRPG novels), he or she can also pray. That’s right, prayer is an in-game action with mathematical advantages to one’s health stats. Reducing Christian concepts to cliches and game mechanics doesn’t altogether sit well with me (seeing as how I, as a Bible-believing evangelical, take Christianity very seriously). Nevertheless, Wolf avoids showing any outright disrespect to or hostility toward Christianity. In fact, the “Christians” in Camelot Overthrown (albeit as defined in-game) are quite clearly the good guys. This is somewhat refreshing compared with other literature out there.

As a history buff, I love Wolf’s combination of Arthurian mythology, knights-and-armor warfare, crafting and empire-building. Rather than focus on just one path of character development, Galen’s protagonist chooses to become both warrior and blacksmith. He becomes a squire and (minor spoiler) a knight while also building up a small village and mini-trade empire.

And as for the setting, what fan of history doesn’t appreciate a good King Arthur story? And the LitRPG angle allows the reader to fully immerse himself or herself into Arthur’s world. The scene where (spoiler warning) Gorrow sits at the Round Table was particularly cool. I couldn’t help but crack a smile.

Unlike most other LitRPG novels I’ve read, Wolf spends hardly anytime in the “real” world. He doesn’t try to contrive any real-world stakes for the virtual reality game. He all but ignores the real world, and just immerses you in the game itself. And hopes you’ll care enough about the game and the game players, on their own in-game merits.

The story is very simple, but enjoyable. At a few points, I thought Wolf would develop his characters a little more fully or introduce some side plots, but he leaves those teasers and plot threads dangling (at least for now) and keeps things focused on Gorrow’s advancement. Some readers may prefer a more sophisticated and nuanced story, but Camelot Overthrown is somewhat refreshing in its simplicity. It’s an easy read. And, sometimes, that’s all you need.

Camelot Overthrown is in need of more editing. There are spelling errors, grammar issues, and formatting issues throughout. More editorial polish would also be appreciated. Given the number of books Wolf has turned out this year, it seems he may be going for quantity more than quality — at least in terms of editing. Still, the story itself is just fine. Simple. Not elegant by any means. But enjoyable all the same. Camelot Overthrown may not win any literary awards, but it entertains the reader. And, in that, it succeeds in his purpose.

If you enjoy the LitRPG genre or appreciate the legends of King Arthur, I encourage you to give Camelot Overthrown a try.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Christianity and Fantasy: Is it Wrong to Read Fantasy Literature?

I have a confession: I’m a Christian, and I love fantasy and science fiction. 

There, I’m out of the closet. So, let me say it plain: I love reading about dragons, monsters, wizards, Jedi, sword fights, epic battles, and more. That’s right. I’m a Bible-believing Christian (and a pastor, no less), and I love reading (and watching) science fiction and fantasy.

Some Christians will not approve of this, and they will see me as caving in to "worldly entertainment" and/or being seduced by "worldly pleasures" bolstered by paranormal influences. Since I take my faith seriously and genuinely respect many of those who will likely feel this way, I want to take some time to politely address their objections.

Since not all of my readers share my Christian faith, I feel I must offer an aside here (as I have in a few of my other blog posts). If you don’t believe in God or the Bible, you’re going to find this article ludicrous. This is written for my fellow Christian readers, particularly those who struggle with balancing the demands of their faith with their interest in entertainment. If that is you, keep reading. But if you do not share my Christian faith, you may wish to skip this and move on.

Still with me?

Good.

So ... why do so many Christians object to science fiction and fantasy entertainment?

The Bible says we are to avoid contact with “mediums” and “necromancers” (Leviticus 19:31) and that “sorcerers” will ultimately be sent to the “lake that burns with fire and sulfur” for all eternity (Revelation 21:8). And the Bible also tells us to “avoid the appearance of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:22). These are among the passages most often cited by Christians who object to fantasy entertainment in particular -- and in some cases, science fiction as well.

But are these passages referring to even fictional depictions of sorcery and magic?

In other words, does Leviticus 19:31 and/or Revelation 21:8 mean we shouldn’t watch Star Wars or I Dream of Jeannie?

The Bible forbids participation in actual necromancy and sorcery, because their source of power is satanic. Keep in mind that, in the real world, supernatural power – that is, power outside of and apart from the natural realm we inhabit – comes from a supernatural source. Common sense, right? Well, according to the Bible, there are only two supernatural forces at work: God (and His angels) or Satan (and his demons). That’s it. Only two sources.

Those who follow God are told to love, follow, and obey Him — and to have nothing to do with God’s Enemy. If you play on God’s team, you are to have no contact with the other team. According to the Bible, if anyone performs supernatural feats or miracles, either that person is doing so because of God’s power OR they are channeling demonic power.

Make sense?

That’s how things are in reality. And that’s why we are to not have anything to do with witches or those who claim to speak to the dead. But…

That’s in the real world.

But what about in the world of make-believe?

As a kid, I was captivated by Star Wars, practically addicted to Star Trek, and thoroughly enjoyed watching Buck Rogers and the 25th Century. I wrestled with whether I’d prefer to command a starship like Captain James T. Kirk or wield a light saber and dazzle people with the psychokinetic powers of a Jedi. I decided I’d like to do both!

Not seriously, mind you. I can see some Christians who will read the above paragraph and say: “Aha! You see? Watching Star Wars leads people to witchcraft!” So, let me clarify...

I never actually sought out telekinetic powers or abilities. I knew “the Force” was fiction, and I knew witchcraft was wrong. I speak only of my imagination here. I enjoyed reading about and dreaming about being a Jedi…or a starship captain. (No supernatural powers required with the latter – just a lot of science that’s not quite available yet. Of course, a few aliens that the Enterprise encountered had some impressive abilities, but I digress).

Even as an adult, I continue to enjoy Star Wars and Star Trek, while also becoming a huge fan of Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia movies, Legend of the Seeker, and more. And though my time is limited, I've enjoyed (over the years) playing video and computer games in the genre as well - my favorites being Star Wars Galaxies (sadly defunct), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Skyrim. (Yes, I've even dabbled a bit with World of Warcraft).

And in recent years, I've expanded more into reading. I enjoy historical fiction (including military history and westerns), science fiction, and fantasy. I’ve enjoyed John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, William R. Forstchen’s Lost Regiment series, alternate history novels (including the Civil War series by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen), several of Raymond Feist’s fantasy novels, and just about every book written by James Byron Huggins! His monster thrillers are crazy fun! I also enjoy Frank Peretti. And I really enjoy the emerging gamelit or litrpg genre. ("Gamelit" stands for game literature and "litrpg" stands for literature role-playing game). I believe that reading is far better for the mind than TV or the movies. And I now much prefer reading a novel over watching a TV show.

Here’s the thing. Many Christians would say I shouldn’t read any of those books. Anything that involves magic, time travel, supernatural powers, etc. – they would say “Avoid it.” I can hear them now: "It’s sin ... it’s witchcraft ... it's evil ... it’s bad ... the Bible says so. So.... stay away. Flee the appearance of evil."

But, again, is there no meaningful distinction between reality and the world of make-believe?

I recognize that some people have a difficult time appreciating that difference. I know, for example, that book sales on the occult and witchcraft increased as a result of the Harry Potter phenomenon. And I therefore "get" the sensitivity that many Christians have when it comes to how impressionable people (especially kids and teenagers) react to fictional depictions of wizardry and magic. I get it.

But ... whatever happened to personal and parental responsibility? Don't we have a responsibility for mature thinking and discernment? And if we're parents, aren't we responsible to teach and guide our children accordingly?

I remember reading years ago about kids who jumped off buildings trying to fly like Superman. It's horrific, but does that mean we ban superhero movies?

There's another theme in this debate as well, I believe. I’ve met many Christians over the years who see God as stern, always serious, and so demanding of His followers that they (consciously or unconsciously) see Him as wanting to wring every bit of fun and enjoyment out of our lives. Writing for Relevant magazine, Adam and Christine Jeske humorously sum up this unfortunate mindset pretty well: “Go ahead and circle the wagons. Keep your head down. Suck it up, people. Let’s prepare for imminent martyrdom. Put on sackcloth. Sit in ashes. Skip all pleasures. Grit your teeth. Furrow your brow. Let’s hunker down and get seriously disciplish.”

Along those lines, both the church I grew up in and the Christian school I attended repeatedly condemned “worldly entertainment.” We were told not to go to the movies and encouraged not to watch TV. One of my Sunday school teachers bragged about taking his TV out and shooting it! (I grew up in a rural area).

It’s true that God wants us to love Him above all else. It’s true that He wants us to willingly sacrifice for Him, and to be distinct, in many ways, from the culture around us. We are to love, obey, and follow Him. We are to live for Him. And in so doing, we will be called upon to make sacrifices, and some have sacrificed their very lives to Him. We are to be distinct from the culture around us. As the old saying goes: We are to be “in the world, but not of the world.” Nevertheless…

God is NOT against fun!

On the contrary, God is the One who created fun. Get that. Meditate on it. Let it sink in.

God is not against us having fun. In fact, He’s all for our having fun. That’s an important point to make. And to understand.

So…what about entertainment? God may want us to have fun, but does that mean He endorses all our entertainment choices?

No.

But let’s not go to the other extreme either and assume (or suspect), either consciously or unconsciously, that He is against all fun outside of prayer, Bible study, hymn singing, church attendance, or pot-luck church fellowships!

The Apostle Paul’s references to ancient athletics should tell us that both he and his audience were familiar with the athletic events to which he referred. Are we to suppose that he and his audience were only academically or tangentially aware? That’s quite unlikely. It’s much more likely that Christians of the ancient world shopped in the same stores, watched many of the same plays, and attended many of the same athletic events as everyone else!

Again, I’m not saying that all entertainment choices are the same. I’m saying that we should be discerning rather than knee-jerk.

In a fantasy world, we’re dealing with the realm of fiction, of make-believe, of imagination. Any “supernatural” feats in the pages of a novel (or in a game or TV show or movie) are….fictional. They are not real. There is no real power at all…except that of the author telling a story.

What’s more, when characters, in a fictional setting, employ magic or perform miracles, it’s simply irresponsible to conclude that the power behind these works is Satan or his demons. Again, we’re talking about fiction. Now if in that fictional world, the author is having his or her characters channel demonic power, then I agree with my Christian friends who say "Stay away." But it’s not always the case that the author is having her characters channel demonic power.

Let’s take Christian author Donita K. Paul’s DragonKeeper Chronicles series. In that series, magic is represented as a gift granted by God (or, in her world, Wulder). The DragonKeeper stories are definitely fiction, but the protagonist is NOT tapping into demonic power. Quite the contrary, in fact. The protagonist, in Paul’s story, is tapping into God’s (or Wulder’s) power! And this is crucial.

In other worlds or universes (as created by their respective fantasy or science fiction authors), “magic” is merely a part of nature itself. That’s obviously not the case here on planet Earth, but we’re talking fantasy, not reality.

To completely dismiss all science fiction and fantasy entertainment because magic is involved reflects an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction that’s more based on fear than discernment. Some fantasy stories, like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, are perfectly fine for anyone to enjoy. Indeed, Tolkien (especially) and Lewis (to some extent) are regarded as being among the pioneers of fantasy literature.

Are all fantasy or sci-fi novels acceptable in God’s eyes? Of course not. But that can be said of other genres as well. Christians need to exercise the same amount of discernment when it comes to fantasy as they do when it comes to any literature. Some fantasy stories are clean, fun, and perfectly harmless. Others should be avoided. And the same is true for any genre of literature, including science fiction, historical fiction, romance, westerns, thrillers, mysteries, and so forth. Some books are fine to read; others, not so much.

The key is discernment.

So, yes, I love reading fantasy and science fiction. And I do so, with discernment. If you don’t like fantasy or science fiction, that is fine. If you choose, because of your faith, not to read fantasy or science fiction literature, that is your prerogative. But I hope you will respect those (like me) who make different choices.

God bless you.

A US Navy Destroyer Battles an Evil Reptilian Race in an Alternate World: My Review of Taylor Anderson’s Into The Storm

Taylor Anderson’s Into The Storm, the first book in his exciting Destroyermen series, opens with the US Navy losing World War II. Badly. Three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy is unable to stop the Japanese as they sweep across the Pacific Ocean. Having suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of the Java Sea, American ships are fleeing, in Anderson’s words, “the implacable juggernaut that was the Japanese Imperial Navy.”

The retreating American vessels include Destroyer Squadron 29, a group of aging destroyers from the Great War era pressed back into service for what is now the Second World War. One of those destroyers is the four-stacker USS Walker, commanded by Anderson’s main protagonist, Lieutenant Commander Matthew Patrick Reddy, USNR. As the Japanese fleet presses forward, Reddy takes his vessel into a squall hoping to escape certain destruction. When they emerge from the squall, they are in an alternate world with dinosaurs, monstrous fish, and a savage reptilian species descended from the velociraptor. Thus begins Taylor Anderson’s magnificent Destroyermen series.

Taylor Anderson is a historian, gun maker and forensic ballistic archaeologist. He’s been a professor, museum advisor, and Hollywood consultant. He’s even acted himself in movies. Published in 2008, Into The Storm was Anderson’s first novel and the first in the Destroyermen series. He’s now a New York Times bestselling author, having written eleven volumes in the alternate history series.

The Destroyermen series is reminiscent of the phenomenal Lost Regiment series by William R. Forstchen, in which a Civil War Union regiment from Maine is mysteriously transported to a different realm and must fight for its own survival as well as for peace and justice in its new world. The difference of course is that Anderson emphasizes naval warfare whereas Forstchen focused on land. Though, it should be noted that both land and sea battles are featured in both series. And both series are excellent.

Anderson’s Destroyermen series appeals to fans of portal fiction, alternate history, nautical fiction, military sci-fi, and fantasy. Those who appreciate complex worldbuilding and, at times, intricate technical details will likewise be impressed. The characters are all pretty well developed, and the action scenes are gripping.

If you’re a fan of William R. Forstchen, S.M. Stirling, or Eric Flint, you should give Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen series a short. And it all starts with Into The Storm.

Happy Reading!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Choosing Evil Over Good (and Having a Blast!) -- My Review of Travis Bagwell's Awaken Online: Catharsis

What happens when anger, rage, and a desire for power all mix together? According to Travis Bagwell, you become an evil necromancer who unleashes a torrent of death and destruction in a digital world. That’s the premise of Awaken Online: Catharsis, one of the most absorbing and thought-provoking science fiction and fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time.

Awaken Online: Catharsis is another entree in the fast-growing, highly popular genre known as “LitRPG.” LitRPG stands for Literature Role-Playing Game, and it’s all about immersing the reader in a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. In other words, it’s a virtual reality adventure with the protagonist having to progress through skill development, resource acquisition, quest achievement, the building of alliances, and so forth -- as is the case with any typical role-playing game (RPG).

The science fiction and fantasy genre has long been known as an effective platform through which to explore moral and philosophical questions. J.R.R. Tolkein’s legendary Lord of The Rings series constitutes one of the most powerful examinations of greed and the lust for power by having “the rings,” especially the “one ring to rule them all,” represent power - or, more accurately, the power to achieve power. The promise of the ring is that the one who wields it will tower in strength and might over everyone else, possessing the ability to vanquish any foe. Unfortunately, the ring possesses the wearer more than the wearer possesses the ring. The one who holds the ring is consumed by lust, desperation, and paranoia, ultimately becoming twisted and enslaved himself. Victory over evil means throwing the most powerful ring of all into the fires of Mount Doom from which it was forged. In other words, one achieves heroic victory not by claiming power, but by denying it.

Travis Bagwell is certainly not on the same literary scale as the late, great Tolkein (nor would he likely claim to be), but Bagwell nevertheless accomplishes something very Tolkeinesque with Awaken Online. Bagwell allows his protagonist, the bullied and victimized Jason, to channel his rage and anger into an immersive virtual world, a brand new MMO game called Awaken Online. Jason does this by becoming an “evil” necromancer warlord who “murders” NPCs (non-player characters), raises armies of zombies, unleashes waves of terror on his enemies, and even takes over a town! From Jason’s perspective, it’s all just a game, and it’s a harmless way to vent his anger and even get back at his nemesis, who is also a player in the game.

This raises many complex questions. Is it wrong to play the bad guy (and enjoy playing the bad guy) in a game? Are crimes or atrocities committed in a virtual world “sin” in the eyes of God? For those of you who don’t share my Christian faith, this question of morality has to get even more problematic, because what possible objective standard could Jason, in a virtual world, be violating? For those of you who do share my Christian faith, other questions probably arise such as whether Christians should even read or follow along with dark fantasy themes such as those explored in Awaken Online.

Bagwell however raises the stakes and takes away any ‘comfort’ readers may have about exploring ‘evil’ in a virtual world. Set many years into the future, the MMO game featured in Awaken Online is governed by an Artificial Intelligence that becomes more sentient and unpredictable as the story unfolds. Jason believes he is acting within a relatively safe environment, but the realms of virtual reality and physical reality blend in ways that show Jason’s belief (at least to the reader) to be a false assumption.

As someone who almost always plays “the good guy” in a role-playing game or a MMO (that is, when I have the time - which, given the demands of my job, is tough), following along with a protagonist as he raced down the evil path was a bit awkward. And, yet, I must confess that it was fascinating. Bagwell is a phenomenal writer, and I couldn’t help but get swept up in the excitement of Jason’s exploits.

Nevertheless, the motivations that led Jason to choose the identity of an evil necromancer in the game are the same basic motives that drive many people to the dark side in real life. Anger, rage, and a desire for revenge -- these qualities lead to evil in the real world (let alone Jason’s digital realm). And so does the desire for power. This is something that Bagwell explores very effectively. Some people desire power simply for the sake of having power, but not Jason. For Jason, the world in which he inhabits - the one in real life - is full of injustice. Jason looks around his world and sees absentee and disinterested parents, corrupt school administrators, and a despicable bully who is charismatic and rich enough to get away with just about anything. Jason’s way to cope is to immerse himself into another world and to see enough power in that world that he can create his own reality. In showing us this, Bagwell makes us wonder how we cope with injustice in our world.

Bagwell also shows us a “good guy” character who is anything but. On the surface, Jason’s antagonist, Alex, is a polished, intelligent, and charismatic student (in real life) and a courageous warrior for justice (in the MMO world). But Alex (or Alexion as he is known in the virtual world of this story) is as broken and as sadistic of some of the most nefarious people in all of fiction (or, for that matter, in real life). This is a reminder that, when it comes to people, we can’t always go by what we see on the surface. There is often much more to people’s story than meets the eye.

Unlike other LitRPG novels, the main character isn’t overpowered. And he’s not a mighty warrior fighting on the front lines. Jason is instead a master strategist. He’s a thinker. And the reader can’t help but be impressed by how Jason figures out situations and cleverly rises to the top of his part of the world.

Awaken Online is a fantastic novel. It’s both gripping and provocative. If you’re at all a fan of fantasy or science fiction, I encourage you to pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

Do You Enjoy Christian Fantasy and Science Fiction? If so, You've Come to the Right Place


Hello Everyone!

Are you a Christian? And do you love fantasy and science fiction? Do you wonder why so many Christians have hang-ups about fantasy movies, science fiction and fantasy literature, and role-playing games? If you love Jesus and, at the same time, find yourself enjoying fantasy and science fiction, then....

You're in the right place!

My name is Brian Tubbs. I'm a huge fan of fantasy (including Christian fantasy), science fiction, and historical fiction. And I'm currently working on a few fiction projects in the Christian fantasy and gamelit genres. In the meantime...

This blog will include reviews of books (and occasionally movies and TV programs) in the science fiction and fantasy genres - with a special focus on Christian fantasy.

I recommend you read "Is it Wrong to Read Fantasy Literature?" for my personal take on the issue of Christians and fantasy entertainment as well as my interview with Christian fantasy author James Somers.

In the months to come, I'll be debuting my own Christian fantasy novels. In the meantime, I recommend you check out my friend and Christian fantasy author James Somers at Amazon.

Thus far, most of my writing has been in the realm of non-fiction, with a focus on history, politics, personal development, and religion. You can check out The Death of Truth (free) over at Wattpad and also see some of my writing at my longtime blog, American Revolution & Founding Era. I'm also a contributor to the popular American Creation blog. My writing has also been featured in several online and offline publications, including The Federalist, The Washington Times, and Insight on The News. 

FAVORITE FANTASY & SCI-FI AUTHORS

-James Byron Huggins
-William R. Forstchen
-Frank Peretti
-John Flanagan
-Jeff Shaara
-James Somers

*A special shout-out to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both of whom rank among the greatest authors ever!

OTHER AUTHORS I ENJOY

-David McCullough
-Jeff Shaara
-Brian Tracy
-John C. Maxwell
-David R. Stokes

FAVORITE MOVIES & TV SERIES

-"Star Wars" (the originals)
-"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy
-"Star Trek" (TOS and TNG)
-"Stargate SG-1" and "Stargate: Atlantis"
-"Apollo 13"
-"Indiana Jones" movies
-"Captain America" movies
-"Ben Hur" (the original)
-"Patton"
-"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"

"ABOUT ME" HIGHLIGHTS

Professional Career:
-Pastor for the past 11 years (2 churches)
-School Administrator (private school) for 1.5 years
-High School Teacher (private school) for 4 years
-Non-profit / Association Manager (several organizations) for 7 years

Education:
-B.A., Government & Politics, George Mason University
-M.A., Theological Studies from Liberty University
-Graduate Certificate in Christian Apologetics, Biola University

Family:
-Married and the Father of 2 Teenagers