Overall Trilogy Score: 90/100 (9.0 out of 10)
Book 1: 88/100 (8.8 out of 10)
Book 2: 89/100 (8.9 out of 10)
Book 3: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
These books are an illustration of imagination gone wild!
The first three books in this ever-growing series would make a fun 50+ hour RPG video game or even a 23-episode TV show.
The story reads beat-by-beat like a classic RPG with a chosen hero or heroine (Gilraen) on a long, arduous quest to defeat an evil lord (Beckworth) and his chief minions/corruptors (Adjudicars) while recruiting multiple different types of beings to her cause. It's a formula as old as the fantasy genre itself that works, and Dr. Joanne Reid executes. It does have a sorta Ultima-esque feel to it, fitting for a Gamelit series. There is a sense of adventure throughout these books, especially as Gilraen travels from place to place meeting new people. The world-building definitely stands out and will get its own section at the end of this review. The thought and effort put into this series is almost without compare.
With that said, the trilogy is not without its fair share of problems. That begins with some grammatical errors in book one, some very slow or even redundant moments in book two, and how almost this entire series got salvaged (from a B grade to an A) in the last 100 pages of book three. What's quite interesting is that the writing quality does improve substantially in books two and three. Grammar becomes almost a non-issue later on for some reason. Dr. Reid's writing clearly improved as the series progressed.
What remains an issue are some minor annoyances like how Gilraen feels the need to introduce herself continuously as “Gilraen of the Elves of the Green Mountain-Maidstone Forest” as if we didn't already know that from the first four-dozen times she or another character told us. There's even a part when her title is read out three consecutive times by three different people in the span of about half a page. If this were a video review, we'd insert Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction daring us to “say [Gilraen of the Elves of the Green Mountain-Maidstone Forest] again!”
We assuaged having to read Gilraen's title again and again by substituting it with the names of beverages, food items, and other brands. So, Gilraen of the Elves of the Green Mountain-Maidstone Forest occasionally became “Gilraen of the Rocky Mountain Soda Company” and “Gilraen of the Cold Stone Creamery” or “Gilraen of the Irish Spring Hair, Face and Body Wash” or “Gilraen of the University of Illinois Fighting Illini.”
We're so sorry, Dr. Reid, at least we had more fun reading it this way!
Another small nagging issue was the play-by-play. For some reason, we had to know exactly where everyone was sitting or standing in relation to everyone else at all times as well as their height, level of attractiveness, eye-color, race, alma mater (slightly exaggerating here), and most of all their title (because of course). And we had to hear their title repeated almost every single time they're reintroduced into a conversation (because of course). Ultimately, these issues become strangely humorous and entertaining over time in a Monte Python Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch sorta way. No kidding! It ended up being the most fun we've had reading a fiction book in a long time.
What realistically should've happened every time Gilraen showed up and started telling royals and military leaders what to do is equivalent to this scene from Forrest Gump when Forrest gets put in his place by a bus driver: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcwCXsax2CI. Note: we don't condone the language used in this Forrest Gump scene, but it's a classic. You get the point.
There's something very special when a character is overlooked, downtrodden, or mistreated. Think about Forrest Gump. He's always underestimated and often insulted as "stupid or something." Think about Rocky. Would we have cheered for him if he was the biggest, strongest, greatest fighter ever? If he hit harder than Clubber Lang & Ivan Drago and moved better than Apollo Creed? No. He always had a chip on his shoulder. He had to earn respect and the championship, he wasn't given it. Think about Gatsby from The Great Gatsby. Was he born rich like the Buchanans or did he become rich through shear force of will?
We felt for these characters because of how much they struggled and how much they suffered along the way. It's not that entitled or powerful characters like Superman or Bruce Wayne can't be interesting, but their struggles are different. One is an immigrant with vulnerable loved ones, the other has a huge hole in his heart left by his parents despite being a multi-billionaire, not to mention that he's a human who can have his back broken and die. Gilraen doesn't seem to have any of these vulnerabilities. She seems to know that she's a bad#$$ who can do bad#$$ things. She already knows her place at the top of the universe.
With that said, it's important to note that this may be fitting for a Gamelit series. Think about every strategy or tactical RPG ever made and how much command and control the player suddenly has over the party or army right off the bat. In some of these games, you are the supreme commander. The Kessen and Dynasty Warrior series come to mind. You give the orders. You deploy the units. You divide the spoils. That's just how these games are. You earned the rank of master by paying $60 for the game, you didn't graduate from West Point. So, it's actually quite fitting that the player's avatar in this series shows up large and in charge.
Speaking of West Point, did we mention that there's more military strategy discussed in these three novels than Gettysburg, Gods & Generals, Alexander, Saving Private Ryan, Tora Tora Tora, and Waterloo combined?! It can be very interesting, yes, but what made scenes in those movies so interesting is that action/combat scenes were cut and interspersed between people discussing strategy. Military strategy can be incredibly interesting if not downright fascinating, however you still need to move the story along, not get it stuck in a rut. In the movie Gettysburg, there was a very good reason that generals Lee and Longstreet were portrayed as having disagreements about Pickett's Charge—one, because it actually happened; two, because it was foreshadowing. By contrast, when the generals in this series say they're going to pursue a strategy, they usually just end up pursuing that strategy, or Gilraen points out how intellectually superior she is to all of them and how her strategy would work so much better.
And that leads us to one of the other things that was simultaneously troublesome yet ended up being strangely entertaining as it necessitated another counter gag: how often we're reminded that Gilraen is special and the Chosen One, promised to unite the people of the world (per the prophecy).
In our heads, every time someone would tell us how awesome, powerful, smart, attractive, and good Gilraen was, we'd cut to Obi-Wan standing over Anakin on Mustafar saying how he was the Chosen One destined to bring balance to the Force not leave it in darkness.
We still liked Gilraen, but she would've been a much more interesting character had she been challenged more in the beginning. Instead, she overpowers and/or out-thinks everyone. She's already queen, she's already a better fighter than her trainers, and she already has powers comparable to or greater than the Adjudicars (i.e. the Sith). She's born as an ancient high elf, she doesn't earn it. She gets training but she doesn't need it. She has OP magic, OP weapons (including Soul Blades), and OP skills. By the second book, she's already teaching everyone invisibility spells like she's Professor McGonagall. If this were real life, someone would be shouting from the back, “Sit down, you freshman!”
Furthermore, everyone seems to love and adore her. And if they don't love and adore her, another character will butt in to remind that character how great Gilraen is and how they should be grateful for her. Her love interest is automatically drawn to her because of her resemblance to Dominica, his dead wife. She and William do have some chemistry. They do have some great moments together, and some of the best writing actually comes when talking about the time they spend together. It can be eloquent and touching. For example, there's one scene in which they joke about having kids. It sounds like a real conversation a couple would have.
However, William himself doesn't seem like a very fleshed out character for 2/3rds of this trilogy. He is even called “Prince Charming” because that's who he is most of the time: a really nice and handsome guy who happens to be there and happens to draw the interest of the heroine. He is so good, and so handsome, and so nice. At least Rochester from Jane Eyre and Maxim from Rebecca had some mystery and melancholy surrounding them.
To be fair, the author somewhat assuages this by providing some examples of times when William isn't the undisputed hottest guy in the room. He's in the top 3. He's the Alabama of hot guys in the series.
Until the middle of the second book when he works out with Gilraen, William seems to be just the 'princess in the palace' waiting for his stronger, more capable, and more intelligent girlfriend to save the day and bring home the bacon. But his girlfriend is actually the avatar of a guy who probably looks and acts like Wings of Redemption or Jason Blaha in real life.
Beckworth really doesn't seem to grow past being the Benedict Arnold-ish dark lord. We always hear that he's “that traitor Beckworth” or “evil Beckworth.” But Gilraen is so overpowered and has so much support from so many races of people, it almost feels like the decks are stacked against poor Beckworth. We shouldn't feel that way about the villain. At times, we're only rooting for Gilraen over Beckworth because Gilraen is the heroine and we're told Beckworth is a traitor. We don't really see how messed up Beckworth and the Adjudicars are until very late. In fact, in book three, during the FINAL BATTLE, Gilraen straight-up says she finally has a reason to hate Beckworth.
Something interesting about this series is that it seems to be―to coin the term―a “WORLD DRIVEN” story. Yes, there are characters. Yes, there's a plot. However, the crux of this series seems to be to show off the scope and scale of the world or the universe in which these characters live and in which the plot occurs. These are NPCs on map. In our review of book one, posted to Goodreads, we'd mentioned that we gathered the names and titles of 40+ characters. The author was so kind and helpful to send us a map and a character guide afterward. It helped. There are so many characters. That's not an understatement. And the ones who seem to matter are Gilraen, William, and Beckworth, the rest seem to be sprinkles on a banana split.
The real standout character, again, is the world. The world-building in this is actually impressive. We get an idea of how far away each city or town is from the others. We get an idea of the customs and pet-peeves the different groups of people have. We get to see the pets and farm animals they keep. We get to learn about the food they eat and the special tea/coffee drinks they drink. When it comes to world-building, creativity, and imagination, this is a solid book series deserving of some serious credit!
Another thing we have to mention is that when the writing is good, it's GOOD. There are some beautiful and even visceral descriptions in this, many involving similes like the way William makes Gilraen feel when he's around or when he holds her.
To end this review, we have to talk briefly about the difference the last 100 pages of book three made on our impression of the series. Those last 100 pages salvaged the whole entire series and almost completely changed our tune, but by then we'd already written 3/4ths of this review. Those last 100 pages provided us with a reason to read the sequels while it felt like the series was winding down and ending. They provided us with actual stakes as we saw how evil and cruel the Adjudicars were. It also cuts back to Anthony (the player), whom we'd been dying to hear more about since book one. The character of Anthony has so much potential as he navigates a second life as a powerful elf queen in a video game. There are so many discussions to be had and issues to be explored in terms of gender bending, sexuality, virtual reality, and cyber life. Might Anthony grow as a person and develop due to his experiences as Gilraen?
We spent well over 16 hours on this series. We wrote several drafts of this review. We're only hard on aspects of this series because we really do see the enormous potential that it has! This series is incredibly imaginative. The world-building is top-notch. The author is a truly brilliant person (a doctor) in real life. It's incredible how she's able to capture almost a childlike wonder within these pages!
The books just got better and better as you can see by their scores. What's more? There are four more books in this series that actually look even better than the first three! We're excited for you to check out this series!
Check out Books 1-3 at: https://amzn.to/33k37xD