Who Killed My Body? begins with a great premise: what if an alien took over a girl's corpse, gradually insinuated itself into her life in an eerie, disturbing way... and tried to solve her murder and bring the killer to justice?
The style of Who Killed My Body? is excellent. It hides in the background without calling too much attention to itself, much like an alien body-snatcher. Generally speaking, when I consciously notice an author's style, that's a bad sign, unless I'm reading a very skilled stylist.
Here, SmolShrimpa chooses words that are neither too repetitive nor too ostentatious, deftly controls the pacing of scenes with long and short sentences and paragraphs, and mixes just the right combination of exposition, action, dialogue, and emotional heartstring-tugging. This is much harder than it looks.
Well-proofread and smoothly readable, Who Killed My Body? gives no cause for complaint on this score.
It's tricky to tell a mystery that balances character development with problem solving, but by and large, this story is pulling it off so far! The tension comes not only from the mystery itself, but also the main character's attempts to avoid being outed as an alien.
Stories about social deception frequently collapse into "Idiot Plots," in which people need to be ridiculously oblivious or the main character needs to make absurd mistakes to create drama. Here, shallow conflicts are avoided. Instead, the tensions that arise follow smoothly from the situation and the desires of the characters.
The only real weakness so far is a tendency of some of the red herrings to be too obviously red. There are false leads that most readers will quickly brush off, and that are dismissed in the space of a chapter or two, which makes them seem redundant. But it's also possible that some of these leads are meant to foreshadow later developments... so we'll have to wait and see.
The characters are relatable and recognizable as human beings. With each plot beat balanced by character development, it's easy to care about what's happening in this story.
Perhaps the only real shortcoming here is that sometimes, the main character is too human. While an alien protagonist can't be too bizarre in worldview if readers are going to relate, and this protag is definitely likeable, I'd be happier with one that was just a little more psychologically bizarre. At the same time, my taste isn't everyone's taste, and it is fun to have an MC who is basically sympathetic and also can split open her head to devour an entire deer into a gaping maw of jagged teeth.
It might just be because this story suits my tastes (science fiction + mystery + fun cast of characters), but this is currently my favorite story on RoyalRoad. Strongly recommended!
Note: I'm going to try to avoid spoiling this, but the nature of this review requires at least alluding to some early plot beats and characterization choices. So if you want to go in completely unspoiled, skip this review.
Sometimes, a story seems to require two reviews in one.
The Low-Level Opening:
If I were to review only the first few chapters of The world traveler from the future, I'd mark it as unimpressive. Charles, an AI-augmented engineer, ends up in a generic dungeon in a new System-based world. His abilities rapidly climb as he manipulates the mana around him, even as he's locked out of normal progression.
In a creative move, De Rosa provides Charles the ability to zone out and let his AI control his body while he enters a sort of fugue state. On the bright side, this compresses and eliminates boring passages of grinding. Unfortunately, as these chapters went on, the narrative effect became that of watching someone unenthusiastically stream a video game, and I found myself entering a bit of a fugue state, too.
To make matters worse, Charles is an anti-hero whose chief interests are conquest and not dying. Early on, he seems to have the emotional depth of the sprite at the bottom of the screen in Doom (MS-DOS version). Everyone else is seen as an annoying NPC. Even as the author drops hints that the narration represents a limited viewpoint, that there's more going on here than Charles realizes, and that he's eventually going to have to recalibrate his expectations... man, it's a hell of a slog getting there.
When the main character himself refers to the world around him as "generic," I think at least some readers will give up then and there. It's one thing to satirize the conventions of LitRPGs, which this story sometimes does quite well. But it's another to make fun of a boring thing by being boring!
It might be telling that the following quote appears in chapter 15, perhaps 40,000 words into the story:
[...] for the first time since coming to this world he was being faced with a real challenge where his life was at stake.
It's not that there hasn't been any combat or killing until that point; just that the main character has been able to literally do it all on auto-pilot!
The More Cultivated Later Chapters:
Fortunately, it doesn't take QUITE that long for the story to show positive signs of improvement.
Eventually, the story's real strength comes to the fore: dropping an engineer with a helper AI into a LitRPG system world, and turning his problem-solving skills to the task. At that point, we're no longer dealing with the written equivalent of a bored RPG streamer.
Now comes at least the promise of an opponent, broad and abstract though it may be. The rules, once created, seem to be enforced in a way that at least feels consistent. De Rosa is trying with all his might to make a coherent system of magic as seen through the eyes of technology, explore its implications, and create a sense of danger.
I'm reminded of some older SF novels that feature a competent engineer/scientist in a bizarre world. There's overlap with David Brin's The Practice Effect, a novel about the power of invention and technology in a world where people get too accustomed to automated 'leveling' of their crude equipment. This is a fun concept, and the current chapters of the story execute it in an entertaining way.
Battles feel visceral from the start, and the methodical, careful narrative voice never seems to lose control of what's happening. However, it is once the story finds something worth describing that the descriptions get better. In the earliest chapters, the exposition is often jarring, with the main character seeming to leap to conclusions from scant data. Later, as the storytelling gets more assured, the revelations flow more naturally.
One reveal in particular is a nice surprise and a perfect example of dramatically showing an idea rather than passively relating it. No spoilers, but it involves storage space...
The lapses of grammar are minor at most, and almost never distract from the narration. Occasionally, a sentence could use some reworking of structure. All in all, the grammar is well above the median for RoyalRoad. The author states that he is not a native English speaker, but the work reads smoothly enough.
(The more recent decision to release chapters a little less frequently may have helped, too, allowing more time for proofreading and editing, too.)
As Charles encounters more artifacts of the world that hint at a history and broader principles, his more enjoyable characteristics, such as a driving curiosity, come to the fore. He's still an anti-hero, make no mistake about it, but he's an anti-hero who is starting to show more points of interest and engage with the world around him.
Besides the MC, we have one potentially promising character in a town leader, and some more forgettable ones as well. There's an elf sidekick, whose main function so far seems to be to gaze in wonder and amazement at the main character's actions, deliver bits of exposition from an in-universe perspective, and to allow Charles to grudgingly demonstrate vague, brief flickerings of concern for another person.
It's tricky to rate this story. On the basis of the first few chapters, my rating would be low, but as the novel progresses, the weaker pieces of genre parody are replaced with more enjoyable adventure and problem-solving.
I would recommend The world traveler from the future for people who like:
* Flawed protagonists who solve problems with the application of technology and reasoning.
* Stories that toy around with LitRPG tropes, rather than taking them as given
* "Slow burn" novels of cultivation and development that take some time to pick up speed.
Cybernetic Dragon is a wonderful story in a literal sense: it is full of wonder. The main character, a technologically-augmented dragon hatchling, is charming and curious. So far, the problem at the heart of the story is not self-advancement or survival, but understanding. How do the dragon's new caretakers make sense of a creature unlike any they've ever seen? How does the dragon adapt to their care? Will it eventually become a hazard to them?
This is a refreshing approach!
But before we get back to the strengths...
The writing style could stand some improvement. It ranges from unobtrusive and highly effective (in Chapter 1) to repetitive and heavy-handed (Chapter 4).
Character descriptions are particularly problematic. Here's one from chapter 2:
“Should I feed it?” The nervous boy asked. The duke’s son, Eric, was a handsome boy, blond haired, blue eyed, he looked like a nobleman, but his strikingly pretty boyish face was clouded in fear. The boy struggled to master his apprehension. At the age of ten, the boy was quite brave to be facing a dragon hatchling not much smaller than himself.
That's a lot of repetition, not only of concepts (nervousness, apprehension), but also of words. I counted five uses of "boy" or "boyish" in four sentences. Five sentences, if you split the comma splice.
Here's another character description, this one from chapter 3. I quote it at full length because, well, that's kind of the problem:
Karla was a demihuman, as they were called, instead of normal human ears, the sides of her head were smooth, though covered by long thick fur that resembled bushy sideburns. Though her face was otherwise human, the tall triangular cat ears on top of her head were the clearest indicator of her species. Also on top of her head, besides the furry cat ears, was a long stripe of human hair that hung over her fur to give her a more human looking mop of long black hair that stretched down to her shoulders. But beneath the normal human hair, was a stripe of cat fur that formed a thick undercoat and stretched in a thin line down her back all the way to her tail, which was basically just a normal black cat tail with a cute tuff of white hair at the end. The tail swished back and forth nervously, but she did not complain at being pushed.
All in all, she was a very cute ten year old girl, who, if you discounted the ears and tail, would have appeared fully human. Her nose was small and adorable as a button, her green cat slitted eyes were large and bright. Despite the abuse she suffered, she was buoyed by a naturally bright spirit that was only partly dimmed by her circumstances, and a love of dragons. Since her job was to care for dragons, if she simply ignored the heavy iron collar around her neck that marked her as a slave, and the cruelty of the stablemaster, she could focus on caring for dragons and that gave her a rare passion that made her well suited for her job. Even Blake was careful not to permanently harm her, since he recognized that of the various stableboys, free and slave, that he had at his disposal, she was the best. That is why he had chosen her, after all.
This could best be described as "meandering." It's not the worst character description I've ever seen. But too often, the author tries to explicitly situate the body parts, rather than letting the reader draw reasonable inferences. So it needs to be stated not only once, but twice, that the ears are on the top of her head, and that the stripe on top of her head is next to the ears on top of her head. We need to be told that the cat fur is under her normal hair and that it is an undercoat. We need to be told that the black tail of the catgirl is, in fact, a normal black cat tail.
It makes me want to shake the author and say, "Have more confidence in your readers!"
In spite of the stylistic issues above, the grammar is usually fine. A few comma-splices here and there aren't the end of the world.
Okay, now that we've gotten the frustrating stuff out of the way, let's get back to strengths. This is a really cool story premise. We've got the compelling, heart-tugging Black Stallion formula animal friendship stories, combined with the cerebral, systematic puzzleyness of "intelligent MC with computer helper in a strange world" thrillers.
The tension develops naturally from the premise: from the point of view of the keepers, this creature looks like a dangerous animal, and it may be far more than an animal. From the point of view of the dragon, there are similar reasons to be wary of humans. Add in a cruel but canny stablemaster and a slave whose love of dragons is the only bright spot in her existence, and you have a lot of storytelling material.
Speaking of which, this story includes a character who is enslaved, and seems broadly cheerful in spite of the clear cruelty of her enslaver. The slavery is not depicted sympathetically, per se, but the main character isn't old enough yet to express clear opinions on it one way or the other.
It's too early for me to tell whether or not the topic will end up trivialized, but it's a risky move.
While it's hard to be sure yet how strong the characterization will turn out, there are good signs, at least when it comes to the dragon and the boy. The dragon's perspective is fun to read, and while some shortcuts are being taken, the story wisely recognizes that some things will be harder for the dragon to learn than others. I'm going to pre-emptively rate character high, at least for now.
Writing peccadilloes aside, this is worth checking out. It's a story full of passion for the idea of learning, growing, and understanding, and not just leveling.
Run, Run, Run is a fantasy adventure -- emphasis on adventure. This is a story about striking off into the wilderness, dodging shadowy enemies, and bantering with eccentric old men with strange secrets.
The broad outlines of the plot so far -- an evil empire, a fleeing protagonist with a dark secret, a rebellion -- are nothing new, but it's to the story's credit that no attempt is made to pretend that they are new. Instead, the focus seems to be on executing each scene in a lively way.
Using short chapters that rapidly switch perspective, tacoriddles creates a sense of continual movement even when a given chapter only advances the plot a little. Sometimes, this breathless pace works perfectly, racking up tension and cutting out the filler. At other times, the narration gets too jumpy and unfocused for its own good. Flashbacks in italics proliferate like kudzu, and have the most damaging, distancing effect in the first few chapters.
(Flashbacks aside, the prose itself is usually smooth, detailed, and easy to read, though another round of editing for style and grammar wouldn't hurt.)
When Run, Run, Run succeeds -- it often does -- it seems to take its cues from the stronger parts of The Hobbit, or the sections of The Lord of the Rings where the Fellowship is pursued by evil forces through wood and briar. Like Tolkien, tacoriddles takes real pains with landscape and environment, and juxtaposing idyllic, hobbit-y country life with encroaching danger.
Indeed, the landscape and country are at least as well-developed as the characters so far. Some are filling out; the motivations of the protagonist, Torv, are left mysterious for a while, but I'm not sure why, as nothing that's been revealed so far is that surprising. Daisy, the second protagonist, is gradually developing as well. A third viewpoint character struggles with the ethics of being passive in the presence of evil, and -- well, didn't I say this story switches viewpoints a lot? Anecdotes and, yes, more flashbacks round out their backstories and help add flesh to their bones.
Side characters hew closer to stereotype or, if you would rather be more generous, archetype. But this might be a good call. The perspective switches make it difficult enough to invest in any given character already, so fleshing out the side characters excessively would not have helped.
Even this early, the story shows promise, especially when it comes to scenes of harrowing adventure and charming forest detail.
You will probably like this story if you prefer:
- Epic journeys where people are wrenched out of idyllic life and forced to confront darkness in the world they've always lived in. (See The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit)
- Specifically, if you like that part of The Fellowship of the Ring where the hobbits are pursued by Ringwraiths through the forest, and want more like that.
- Fantasy that is familiar, but well-executed (comfort food, effectively).
You will probably dislike this story if you prefer:
- Linear narration that sticks to one viewpoint for a while.
- Gritty political fantasy where the shades of gray are established early on, and nobody can be seen as 'good.'
- Genuinely unfamiliar fantasy worlds.