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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

An Interview With LitRPG Writer Apollos Thorne

Apollos Thorne is the bestselling author of several LitRPG novels, including Codename: Freedom - Survive Week One, Codename: Freedom - The Goblin Siege, and Underwold: Level Up or Die. I had the privilege of interviewing Apollos at the time his first Codename: Freedom title was released. This interview, conducted back in July 2017, is being republished on this blog for your reading pleasure.

July 2017 Interview with Apollos Thorne, author of Codename: Freedom series

Brian Tubbs (BT): “Your book Codename: Freedom – Survive Week One releases TODAY. I’m looking forward to reading it. It’s in the LitRPG genre. For the benefit of some of my blog readers, can you explain what LitRPG is all about?”

Apollos Thorne (AT): Sure. That is probably the hardest question to answer that I get asked all the time. Tron is a good example. The main character is sucked into a digital world. Although a lot of authors use virtual reality because it’s becoming more and more of a reality. The only difference is that once you are sucked into this world you are able to level up to grow stronger. Just like in the common Role Playing Game. The progression of the characters is usually a major characteristic of the genre.

Another aspect that isn’t talked about as often, but is almost always present, is the competition between other players or people also stuck in the same situation you are. Not only is there the opportunity to level up and grow stronger, but to compete against others. The trailer for Jumanji 2, which just dropped on YouTube, is also a good example.

BT: “What got you interested in LitRPG as a genre?”

AT: I grew up playing games, especially role-playing games. It was always the story of these games the fascinated me. The sense of progression from leveling you character and growing stronger is also something I think really captures the imagination of guys in particular. I think it is a perfect genre to tell coming of age stories. There is also the exploration of future technology that has my inner geek dancing.

BT: “On your blog, you say you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Can you tell us what you most appreciate about them?”

AT: I will start with Tolkien, just because he was the cornerstone for the modern fantasy genre; especially epic fantasy. Even though I am a minimalist in my own writing when it comes to descriptions, to read Tolkien is to enter a new world. He is also a great example of what mankind is able to do with the imagination God has given us. C.S. Lewis is probably a bigger inspiration because of how he was able to mold his Chronicles of Narnia universe into something entertaining to all, but also more directly honoring to God. Also, I was able to start Lewis’s series earlier in life and stay interested.

BT: “You’re a Christian who enjoys science fiction, fantasy, role-playing games, and LitRPG. As you know, some Christians are uncomfortable with these things. What would you say to someone who is sincere in their faith and who also enjoys science fiction, fantasy, role playing games, and so forth?”

AT: First of all, listen to your conscience. For anyone that is a new Christian… do not do anything that you are uncomfortable with just because another Christian has found liberty in that area.

I was converted while in the process of getting a film degree, so understanding where I stood in this area was something I had to figure out fast. Where you stand on any form of entertainment is probably one of the first things you will struggle with as well since it is so readily available in our culture. Don’t rush the process as God renews your mind through His word and wise counsel.

With that out of the way, fiction, regardless of the medium, is fiction, not reality. That distinction is very important. Understanding it is entertainment makes it possible to take something like Harry Potter and discern what is good and wrong about it. Yes, some people believe in witchcraft, or even take the made-up magic of Harry Potter and practice it as if it is real. They have not discerned reality.

As you grow in knowledge of Scripture and experience the philosophies of the fiction, and characters within, the idols of their hearts, and also the good and noble things in the story will become easier to spot. Self-sacrifice, heroism, love, compassion, mercy and redemption are all things that even unbelievers can understand to a certain extent and appreciate. Remember that man is totally depraved, not utterly depraved. Meaning we are naturally sinners, but by God’s grace no one is as bad as they could be. We are also created in God’s image. That makes mankind fascinating, even in his fallen state.

Albert Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is probably the most prolific reader I have ever encountered. Not only does he study every topic under the sun, but he also reads fiction. Now he doesn’t give recommendations, but he has helped solidify certain aspects of different forms of media in my mind. Reading, like nothing else, allows you to experience a story in an extremely intimate way and delve into the heart and mind of the characters, almost experiencing what they are experiencing and takes you on the journey with them. The emotions it can cause are evidence of that.

BT: “By the way, your first name is Apollos – the same name as one of the Apostle Paul’s ministry colleagues in the New Testament. Is that just a coincidence? or did your parents have the Apollos of the Bible in mind?”

AT: That is exactly where I got the name! A man of eloquent speech. I tease that my last name Thorne comes from Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Meaning for every ounce of eloquence He gave me to tell a story, He made sure to level the playing field. Actually the last name just sounded cool.

BT: “Tell us about your book.”

AT: Codename: Freedom – Survive Week One is the first book in what I plan to be a long running series of nine or more books. I wish they broke up nicely into trilogies, but I don’t see that happening. It is a coming of age tale where Lucius, named after the Lucius in Acts, is raised in a world where virtual, mixed and augmented reality have completely taken over everyday life.

His father is a software developer and created an artificial intelligence (AI) bot named Destiny to basically raise him in his place. She is more than that though. She is a constant voice in his head to help him develop to become the best he can be in whatever it is he so desires. Destiny is much more advanced than the regular AI bot and Lucius’s father is rather disappointed he uses her to pursue becoming a professional gamer.

Gaming at this point in time has become as big as professional sports are today, if not bigger. With enough followers you can catch the eye of sponsors and get huge contracts. Lucius is selected to enter a yearlong virtual reality experiment that is really a training simulator, "Codename: Freedom," designed to transform normal people into super soldiers. He enters Freedom to hopefully push his semi-pro status to the next level.

The leveling system isn’t like what is common in LitRPGs. It is based off of military grade Mixed Reality tech. When they level up, they can improve their senses to grow their ability of sight, hearing and smell. All combat is based off of their real world ability. Since both gamers and athletes are chosen to participate this causes some extra drama when the two different worlds clash.

I have to stop now or I’ll give too much away.

BT: “How long did it take for you to write it?”

AT: I started this one in October of 2015.

BT: “How accessible is this story for people who may be uncomfortable with profanity, sexual content, and so forth?”

AT: There is no profanity or sexual content at all for starters. I usually use fillers that are cleaner, like “cyborg snot" for cursing. Something that is cleaner, and more humorous than cringe-worthy. That doesn’t mean I do not touch on mature topics. One of the biggest trials Lucius has to deal with is the 100% pain in Codename: Freedom. Even if pain doesn’t come paired with death, having to wait hours as you suffer through it before your body recovers is not a light topic.

If in the future there is sexual content, then I will imply and not describe it. I have never run into a book where I thought it was necessary to tell the story. Now certain genres are based upon that, but I am not writing for any of those genres.

Also, Codename: Freedom is an action novel. There is violence, but I don’t do gore. That is sometimes a fine line, but I only explain certain events if they are required to explain a tactic and that tactic is impacting the mindset of the character.

Drinking. This is something that is done in Codename: Freedom. I have tried to do it tactfully, but everyone is of age. Secondly, it is not praised. A drunk person is thoroughly mocked in Book One as example. Also, one of the ways it is used is to numb pain while people are suffering from an injury because they have found nothing else that works.

BT: “Have you always wanted to be a writer?”

AT: I have always like the idea, and in college I wanted to pursue it. It wasn’t until after college and I was married that I just started to do it for a hobby that things became series. I put up the rough draft of Codename: Freedom on and got 500k views. After that it seemed silly not to pursue it.

BT: “With LitRPG, you not only have to deal with plot and characters, but also with creating a game world and dealing with game mechanics, character stats, and so forth. Did you design the game before you wrote the book?”

AT: Yes. I also have a second series with a completely different game system coming out hopefully in 2-3 months. This is an aspect I get a kick out of. It’s the gamer in me. Growing up playing games is good for something I guess.

BT: “I’m assuming you plan to follow up with Book Two** at some point. Do you have the series all laid out? Or are you letting things unfold as you go???

AT: A little bit of both. The overall plot over the nine or more books is already outlined. The individual books are only partially outlined. Besides book two that is already written, each individual book I experience for the first time while I’m writing it. There are a few major scenes I have probably already imagined, but other than that the characters do what they want. Lol.

I wanted to thank you Brian for the opportunity and showing the LitRPG genre some love. I hope you continue to enjoy the genre!

**Note: Since this interview was originally conducted, Book Two has now released. Look for it on Amazon at Apollos Thorne's author page

Friday, May 25, 2018

An Interview With Fantasy LitRPG Writer Adam Horne, Author of Unwritten Rules

Adam Horne’s Unwritten Rules is a fantasy LitRPG novel available on Amazon Kindle (free if you have Kindle Unlimited). Last year, I read the book and wrote a review (published originally on a different blog - recently republished here). And I reached out to the author with a few questions, and he was kind to get right back to me. With his permission, I’m posting the interview below.

BT: I really enjoyed Unwritten Rules. How did you discover the LitRPG genre and what made you decide to write in it?

AH: I read Ready Player One. And by read, I mean I put it on my Amazon wishlist, ignored it for 3 years, then rediscovered it and wished I’d picked it up when I first saw it. From there it wasn’t hard to find links to similar books, and I tried several different series, including The Land, Awaken Online, Caverns and Creatures, and some translations of the Russian books. I’d played RPGs, both tabletop and video games, for over 20 years, and I’d also just finished writing my second book, which was a young adult science fiction novel. I wanted to work on something new and LitRPG was a perfect fit for my interests both as a game player and a writer, so I began outlining the story that became Unwritten Rules.

BT: The main character is a disabled young man struggling with depression and looking to find a purpose in life. There are some who may think the novel insinuates that disabled individuals need a virtual reality game to give them purpose. I know this isn’t your intent, but wanted to ask if you could comment on that.

AH: Sure. I always looked at Kevin’s condition as having less to do with his physical circumstances and more to do with his outlook in the aftermath of the car crash. At any point, he could have worked with his new limitations to create a purpose in his life. He had a motorized wheelchair that would have given him the mobility needed to socialize or hold a job, and he had parents and friends willing to support him in his goals. He just needed to make the decision for himself, which isn’t an easy thing to do when suffering from depression. 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.

BT: How did you go about this aspect of developing Kevin as your protagonist?

I don’t have a disability like Kevin’s, so I’ve had to research quite a bit in order to write it. The psychology behind how people change after a traumatizing event kind of surprised me. Many people in Kevin’s situation report that after they come to terms with what happened to them, they feel a deep sense of gratitude for things they used to take for granted. They’re happier afterwards and wouldn’t trade the sense of well-being they’ve discovered for going back to the person they were before. I plan to include more about how playing the game helps Kevin regain some of the physical mobility he lost and how it affects him emotionally and psychologically as well. Hopefully my writing skills are up to the challenge of handling it in a way that is sympathetic towards people with disabilities.

BT: With LitRPG, you’re not just dealing with characters and plot, you have to immerse them in a believable game world and track their progression through that game world. Did you design the game before you wrote the story?

AH: I did a lot of design work before I started writing. I wanted my characters to overcome their problems through strategy rather than being overpowered, something I see a bit too often in LitRPG stories. I felt the more I knew about the game and how it played, the better I would be able to write the story. I knew the skills and powers, leveling system, character classes, death mechanics, and all the ways the AI worked in the background before beginning chapter one. I had to make some changes as I went along, but having all that figured out in advance meant I could focus more on the storytelling as I wrote.

BT: How did you track character stats?

AH: I use a program called Scrivener to help with my writing. It lets me add notes to each chapter, so I kept track of stats that way. Honestly I could have been a lot more diligent about tracking and showing stats, but I tend to concentrate more on the story. When I read LitRPG, I usually skip over the points when an author shows the entire character sheet anyway, especially if they’ve already been individually reporting when skills and attributes increase. I plan to be more diligent in reporting those values in the next book.

BT: I’m sure many readers (like me) want to know when we can expect Book Two. 

AH: At the moment, I can’t say when book two will be ready. It took approximately four months to write Unwritten Rules, but I’m hoping I can work faster this time since the game world has been established. The outline is mostly done, and I intend to release chapters on a weekly basis on Royal Road once I start writing. If you want to include a link to the story page, I will be updating it with information as the book progresses.

BT: Thank you for your time, Adam. I know my blog readers will appreciate this interview. Blessings to you and your efforts.

AH: Thank you for including my book in your blog, and I am glad you enjoyed it.

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.