by Alexander Pyles
Where to even begin, but I think ideally it would be to start at level one. We find Leonard Marcs, an adventurer down on his luck and only able to nail down a data entry gig through the Adventurer’s Guild. Carving out a life in a dead-end town named, Castaway, Marcs is as adrift as the name. Little does he realize what is next for him when a fish is nailed to his door, leading him on a quest of nefarious schemes, divine eels, and a purpose for his life. And really, this isn’t even the half of it.
Fischer has written a debut that is intricately plotted and ties itself into knots. While this does make some of the novel to be a little uneven in prose style, Marcs is enjoyable and quite relatable, because we have all been twenty something and partially hungover all the time. He keys into that very basic, almost normal temperament of our time, the resentment of administration, the hope for better, and the frustration of not being able to achieve more. These all culminate to a fever pitch when Marcs unknowingly stumbled into a plot of his very own making, which causes the narrative’s wheels come off, but with finesse Fischer brings this home.
We are pulled along with Marcs as we race through the levels and attempt to foil a plot that would rip the multiverse apart. Complete with all kinds of surreal and insanity. Filled with wry humor and rather sharp, clear-eyed introspection, there is a wide range to Fischer’s writing as well. He is not a writer limited to one tone or one emotion.
Part lit-RPG, part video game, and part novel, Fischer also clearly borrows from a lot of pulp 80s DND to craft something so unique. Why else smash together banal corp culture and adventuring? Why else mesh spies and magic together? Well, to create a mind-bending and thoroughly interesting world. In some ways, this is what READY PLAYER ONE could have been.
Where RPO fails is that it consistently distracts with nostalgia tinged characters or memorabilia. The main character is continually swallowed by these mentions. Yet, where RPO ultimately fails is the decisions that Wade Watts or Parzival rather makes to shut down OASIS only twice a week. We could make various observations of what this means for the real world of RPO, but the personal stake feels hardly earned or achieved. Marcs on the other hand, comes to an epiphany by the end that the Levels are purely bullshit and he finds his meaning beyond it. LEVELS is not a book for a fence sitter by any means.
And while these themes are kicked around and dug through some, I felt that by the end that Fischer merely touched on them rather than truly addressed them. There are some subtle jabs at corporate capitalism with how the Adventurers Guild ends up bureaucratizing some of the Levels, so much so that the goblin cave level becomes a cube farm. And the matter of job interviews in order to assign a decent mission is a fresh hell onto itself. In those ways, it feels that the story is at its best with snide snark.
Yet, despite these large, abstract themes, Marcs goes on a journey of his own. As stated earlier, he is a younger adventurer who has hit a dead-end. Yet, throughout his arc, he finds himself (somewhat literally) and is able to not only emerge from his displacement and purposelessness, but reclaim his life again. In, which he emerges seemingly unremarkably normal and healthy (bodily, mentality, and spiritually), which goes countercultural to what we would have expected otherwise from such a twisted narrative. Fischer’s goal seems to infect our normalcy with the idea that our ordinary is fine. In fact, it is more than fine, it is Good. This helps ground the story as a whole with retaining a human center, which stands out in a mixed-up strange narrative.
If this is the first novel-length work of Fischer, then I’m looking forward to the next work from him. Written with not only crazed imaginations but with an intimate, refectory core, Fischer has established himself as an up and coming writer. If the next can be as inventive and technical as LEVELS – we are in for a ride!