This is a brief review of Matt Dinniman’s “Dominion of Blades”. This is the first book in the “Dominion of Blades” series, and is categorized as a LitRPG fantasy novel.
A simplified graph of the major plot points in this title can be seen above. Hands down, I don’t think that I’ve recently read a book with such a fantastic opening sentence — this line alone is worth the price of entry into this excellent litRPG title. This title only improves from this line, with well-crafted subplots and a smartly-written backstory. This book was paced very well – scenes are presented in a cohesive fashion, but always had a permutation to keep the reader interested. As a case in point, the beginning quarter of the book focuses on the protagonist advancing from a complete novice into someone skilled enough to defeat a giant dragon — however, as soon as the audience just starts to get their sea legs underneath them, the protagonist gets cursed by a fellow player and the game mechanics change completely.
In addition to a great central plot, this book has several excellent subplots do a great job of bringing more depth to the title. Within the many subplots, the most memorable I found were (1) figuring why the main protagonist was persuaded to come unwillingly onto the Hibiscus, (2) questioning the motivation of the main villain, and (3) figuring what exactly was going on in the ‘real world’. Most litRPG titles, with the exception of the excellent Viridian Gate Online series, diminish the importance of the ‘real world’ at the expense of developing the ‘game world’, but this book does an excellent job of putting equal importance on both — not to give too much away, but there are pending cataclysmic events occuring in the real-world and the game-world, and I’m curious on how / if these issues will be resolved simultaneously.
Although the ‘game world’ in this story is pretty standard, the author does a great job in painting a world that seems real enough for the reader. I would state that the author does a particularly good job of adding snark to relatively mundane in-game actions. As a case in point, there’s a portion in the beginning of the book, the protagonist is eating a kabob in a town that has been plagued by gnome attacks — the author first does a in-depth description of the juicy, delicious, golden-brown kabobs, and then connects the dots that the protagonist is likely eating a fellow humanoid with all the resultant implications of cannibalism — it’s a slick writing trick that I thought was very clever. In a similar fashion, the author does a great job of describing the anxiety that the protagonist feels about being ‘trapped in a game world’ — most litRPG titles have protagonists that quickly accept their fate and move on, but the protagonist in this game actually works through the five Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) as he advances.
The last thing that I really liked about this title was the excellent game mechanics — one neat premise that the game exhibits is that the main characters have extremely high skills but low player levels, in essence becoming the ultimate glass cannon. This leads to an emphasis on using particularly underhanded environmental tricks (holy water, piranhas, royal bureaucracy) to achieve their goals — this dovetails nicely with the plot and leads to good storytelling. If I could point at one flaw, the author does a great job of quantifying the exponential scaling of levels with the passage of a millenium of in-game time, but one would expect that the in-game economy would change as well — certainly the purchasing power of a single unit of in-game currency (the ‘jack’) would decrease over such a long time — I haven’t done the precise calculations, but even conservatively using an inflation rate of 2%, one would expect that a feast would cost more than the fees mentioned in the title.
The most memorable thing about this book are the characters — I don’t want to completely spoil the surprise, but all three of the main characters have real-life identities that are far different from the classic straight male protagonist that populate most other titles in this genre. When I first read this title, I initially thought that this was a gimmick of sorts, but thankfully I was proven wrong. There’s a great quote in the middle of this title where the character describes why he didn’t play RPG games in real life — “I spent my entire life pretending to be someone else. I guess I didn’t need to pay to do it also.”. Good stuff.
The great thing about this book is, even if all three protagonists had generic backstories, it would still be an excellent title — the protagonists are funny, ingenious, and highly entertaining. I particularly liked the character Popper, who frequently assigned hilarious names to her weapons (the knife “Dolly Trauma’). The cast of supporting characters are also quite good, and I found it hilarious to see the interactions between the high-falooted unicorns and the protagonist’s rather unusual hippocorn.
This book was definitely a page-turner — I actually finished the entire book in two days. This is definitely a book that I am planning to re-read, since I’m positive that there are things that I missed in passing. One unique thing about this title is that the whole title is told in retrospective — the beginning of the title and the end of the title occupy the same tme, so there’s a great sense of full circle after the read.
From a more mundane perspective, spelling and grammar were perfect I liked how the litRPG notifications and statistics were presented. I felt stylistically that the book could cut down on the melodrama a bit, but don’t think that this really hurt the overall tone. Similarly, I felt that some of the references to advertising were a little anachronistic and broke some of the story immersion (Outback Steakhouse / McDonald’s), but perhaps these entities will be financially solvent in the far future (Outback? really?).
Overall, this book was fantastic. It is rare for me to feel that a title is worth a re-read, but this title certainly fits the bill, with memorable characters, fast-paced action scenes, and intriguing environments. Highly recommend.