Part 1: World’s Most Obvious Werewolf
Part 2: Crossdressing to Victory
Part 3: Questapalooza
Part 4: Reversal
Part 5: We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Trap
Part 6: Crocodile Tears
Part 7: The Dragon Dimension
Part 8: Story Time
Part 9: At This Rate We’ll Be Blowing Up Namek By The End Of The Book
Part 10: The Big Reveal
The Kartoss Gambit is a step down from Survival Quest. Now, Survival Quest was pretty good, so for Kartoss Gambit to be a step down doesn’t make it bad, but it is sinking down into the realm of “eh, pretty good, I guess.” If trends in this book continue, I could see later books in the series ending up downright dull. The Kartoss Gambit has only one truly boring segment, but that segment is the kind of thing I could see taking over the narrative, because similar trends show up in other scenes, just less overbearingly. I’m referring to the quest in which Danny goes into a forest to find some treasure, has a bunch of random encounters none of which are especially interesting, and ultimately finds out that he’s basically been pranked because the treasure is just a unique dress, although he does later find a use for it. It’s an episodic side quest, which is fine, except that the episode doesn’t work at all as a standalone story. Its final encounter is particularly egregious, because Danny is able to solve it just by summoning his totem, for no other reason except that the game gave him a rare totem.
Elements of the same problem crop up in bits and pieces throughout the rest of the story. None of the other parts are ever dreadfully dull, but there’s times when Danny gets something just because the game gives it to him. Multiple quests are given to him over every other player in the game, and they lead to cataclysmic consequences for the entire Eurasian server (it’s never actually specified which server Danny’s on, actually, so maybe it’s actually the American server or the Oceania server or whatever, but whichever one it is, it’s a fifth of the game’s playerbase). Danny is instrumental to the collapse of the current regime in both the major factions of the continent pretty much just because the tiny little village he was paroled to turned out to be the focal point of a unique and game-altering quest chain.
The first book focused on the local story of a couple of prison miners trying to win their way to a parole in the game world. The second book could’ve focused on Danny trying to set himself up for success in the game world while nailed to a small and backwoods region, low on valuable resources, home to only a handful of quests, most of them non-repeatable, and not really designed for players outside the level 10-20 range, making it difficult for him to level once he gets past that. The primary antagonists could’ve been that pack of PKers trying to get his rare dungeon drop from him, not as pawns of a sinister nation-spanning conspiracy, but just as selfish actors with a huge level advantage. The quest chain Danny stumbled across could’ve just been added as part of a general quest expansion update adding new quests to underserved areas, so no one’s really talking about it in the forums both because it’s brand new and because it’s one of dozens of new quests added, and the manual just serves to explain that yes, the quest exists at all, here’s where it starts and here’s a blurb vaguely hinting at what it’s about. Give the chain a prize that, for whatever reason, Danny really needs to get ahead, and the book can be about Danny trying to get to the end of the quest chain while dodging the PKers. Let Danny eventually escalate to continent-spanning stakes in later books, sure, but for now, just finding some way to successfully defeat a trio of PKers at mid- to end-game level while he’s still level 20-ish would be more than enough to make him seem like an exceptional up-and-coming fellow.
That specific idea is just an example of the kind of thing that could’ve happened instead of this sudden escalation to game-spanning stakes. What’s important is that it would’ve expanded the reach of Danny’s influence and capability at a more steady and believable pace (there are ways to do a sudden escalation of influence believably, but the Kartoss Gambit is not how you do it) while still providing a clear goal and clear stakes.
The Kartoss Gambit is still entertaining scene to scene (except for that one forest quest). It was fun to watch Danny hunt down the mist demon and he made several honest to God mistakes along the way, which helped make him seem a lot less Mary Sue after all the unique quests that got dumped in his lap. I have mixed feelings about how the ending zig-zagged a lot of my initial predictions, because setting up what seems like an obvious plot (the headman’s estranged son is clearly the evil werewolf menacing the town, right?) to then have it swerve off the usual plot line in a way that doesn’t actually make a difference at all (okay, so the estranged son is actually the good guy and the headman is the bad guy, but by the time we learn this the story is almost over anyway and the climax would’ve played out identically if the estranged son had been the villain all along, so who cares?), but at least it indicates awareness on the part of the author that this isn’t the first time his audience has heard a story.
It’s kind of weird that this summary is coming out so negative, because the fact is that while reading the Kartoss Gambit I generally wanted to continue reading it. During the hiatus over the holidays, I actually had to force myself not to finish the book early because I didn’t have time to blog the book as I went and I didn’t want to lose that “reaction as it’s read” element, but the book was good enough that I wanted to finish it up. I think this phenomenon validates the blog-as-I-go approach, too, because if you go back and read most of the parts, you’ll find a lot of them generally have positive things to say about moments as they happen, but after I put it down, nothing really stuck to my memory (contrast Survival Quest: Danny’s revenge on Batman and his whole ring crafting hustle were lots of fun to watch). How much it matters that the book left such a meh impression afterwards despite holding my interest as I read is left as an exercise to the reader.