This was a difficult book to grade because I had such mixed feelings about it. Although original, imaginative and entertaining in many respects, I can only recommend it with reservations and Iíll try to explain why.
Neil Scott and his partner, Gwen Marlowe, own a video game store where, among other things, they sell the virtual reality game called Tolemac Wars.
Neil has just buried his mother, an alcoholic who finally succeeded in committing suicide. Now, wanting to escape the responsibilities and seeming futility of his life, Neil decides that he will, as Gwen did before him, escape into the world of the game. Not just play the game, but actually enter the fantasy world in which the game takes place. Gwen warns him that it is dangerous and unpredictable, but he is determined and takes the persona of an ambiguous character called The Unknown.
Following a somewhat vague procedure to enter the game, Neil arrives on an isolated mountainside in time to interrupt an attack by three ragged-looking men on a woman who seems to be performing some sort of solitary ritual. Although he is unarmed, he occupies the men long enough for the woman to escape but he is badly beaten and robbed of everything, including his clothes.
Ardra was indeed performing a ritual, hoping that it would bring her a warrior. Her much-older consort is dying and their son is too young to take his place. In her world women may not rule, so she needs a strong male to help lead her people.
Sheís pretty sure that the man who saved her is not the warrior she seeks, but she feels obliged to help him. Because she cannot leave him helpless in the forest, she takes him on her journey to beg Samoht, the Tolemac leader, to allow her to be her sonís Regent. En route, the situation is complicated when they discover that the Goddess of Darkness has apparently stolen the Vial of Seduction to help her entrap a new consort. Samoht says heíll consider Ardraís petition if she finds the Vial of Seduction and returns it.
Yep, itís complicated all right, and Iíve just scratched the surface. It starts slowly, but once I got into it, I found a lot to enjoy. Tolemac is a vivid, well-realized world with powerful internal logic and consistency. My only problem was feeling there were gaps in the information I was given, particularly early on. I wasnít sure if it was because it was contained in the two previous books in the ďVirtualĒ series (which I have not read), or if the author simply understands the world sheís created so well that she skipped steps that are completely obvious to her.
Iíll also admit to disappointment that the author didnít make more use of the fact that weíre inside a game. Except for a couple of nods in that direction (the natives, for example, donít bruise), we could have been in almost any Arthurian-type fantasy. (That wasnít a huge leap, by the way. Tolemac is Camelot spelled backwards.) I also had no idea why this game was special - or is the premise that every game has an actual reality that can be entered by the few who discover its secret?
Thanks to the power of the fantasy world, however, I think the book succeeds much better as pure adventure than it does as a romance. The characters, even Neil (or Lien as heís called in Tolemac) and Ardra, were more like archetypes than real people and the story was told in a detached style that resisted emotional involvement with the characters. This works just fine when the atmosphere is that of a legend being recounted by a fireside, but in a romance I want to feel a powerful emotional connection with the characters, not stand back and observe.
Having said all that, the book does have a lot of strengths, particularly the fantasy elements. I think that fantasy readers who enjoy having a love story in the mix will appreciate it more than those looking primarily for a love story in an unusual setting.