Level Up Or Die Reviews

Review by Kirkus Reviews

A young convict gets dropped into a deadly video game in this YA SF novel.

In the dystopian People’s Republic of California, convicts aren’t sent to prison but rather forced to compete in the Games-virtual reality video games-for the entertainment of the masses. Sounds fun, right? The only problem is, if you die in the Games, you die in real life. And Donovan Riley has just been sentenced to 15 years of play. Adopting the handle BrokenChains, Donovan is plunked into a mountainous steampunk world called God’s Staircase and told that if he can make it to the top, he will be set free. Of course, he’ll have to fight his way there, past computer-generated enemies and the other convicts he shares the world with. “They really threw hardened murderers in here with the low-level offenders?”

Donovan asks a fellow prisoner shortly after he arrives. “Sure did,” the old hand tells him. “And no consequences for killing anyone in the game. Constitutional rights of every inmate are suspended. We’re not people again until our sentence is served.”

Donovan soon hooks up with a crew of like-minded prisoners looking to escape the game-though they have no notion of what the game will do to keep them right where they are. In this series opener, Smith and Lisec’s prose is descriptive, if a bit sophomoric. For every clever line (“You want to murder a noob, you must go through me”), there are a couple of clunkers (“I don’t take orders from anyone who looks like the server messed up and swapped his butt with his face”). Still, as the book is primarily about people beating one another with swords in order to level up, such writing suffices. The authors manage to make the world of the Games feel real even as they constantly remind readers that it is all a simulation. The fact that Donovan and the others can die at any moment helps up the stakes yet there is a lightness to the tone that keeps things feeling more or less like a video game. It’s a novel for a niche audience, but fans of the genre will likely enjoy this unsubtle offering.

A blunt, fast-moving, entertaining tale set in a steampunk virtual reality world.

— Kirkus Reviews