Amazon Prime comes with so many benefits it’s easy to overlook some of the cool things you can get with a Prime membership. I recently discovered that there are three awesome avenues for free reading through Amazon Prime.
The first is that Prime members can read one book a month from the Kindle Unlimited library. Unlimited offers a pretty wide selection of books from authors both well-known and unknown. Next, Prime members can download one book a month from Kindle First for free. Kindle First offers a small selection across 6 or so rotating genres of pre-release books each month. Lastly, the newest option to read for free comes from Prime Reading, a large selection of all kinds of rotating content. Between the three, I always have stuff on my Kindle available to read at my convenience at no cost. It’s pretty cool.
The thing that I’ve learned is that when you’re dealing with free stuff, you end up wading through a lot of pretty crappy stuff before you can find the good stuff. When you do find the good stuff though, oh, it’s sweet, because chances are you’ve found something you wouldn’t have normally ever taken a look at.
One of the true gems I’ve found from Prime Reading is “Awaken Online: Catharsis” by Travis Bagwell, and I have the book’s engaging cover art to thank for that. You know how you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover? Well, that’s crap. Total crap. Because the cover to “Awaken Online: Catharsis” immediately caught my eye and made me click to find out more about the story. I’d shout out to the cover artist but I haven’t been able to figure out who it is.
Back to that cover, the thing is, I hate cats. Like, really hate them. Putting aside the allergies I have to cats, I’ve also come to believe that they’re evil. No good and just God would create them, therefore they are demon spawn. It’s a hard reality that people try to hide from.
The cover to “Awaken Online: Catharsis” doesn’t hide from what cats are really about. The cover embraces the sinister nature of cats. That cat is a typical cat, no more, no less. I mean, look at that thing. I’d say that cat’s scary as Hell, but Hell would turn it away. That cat would approach Hell, and Ron, the guy that lets people come in to Hell would take one look at that cat and shoo it away with a broom, mumbling under his breath how Hell’s not built to handle that kind of thing. I don’t know this for sure, I’ve never been to Hell, but it feels right. Ron is probably underpaid, I would guess. Dealing with that kind of cat wasn’t part of the job description.
Anyway, “Awaken Online: Catharsis” is considered to be part of the “LitRPG” genre, which is… becoming a thing? The main character is a teenager named Jason. Jason’s life is a crap sandwich. Rather, Jason is the type of character that perceives his life as a crap sandwich. Kids at school are abnormally mean to him, the school administrators are oddly out to get him, his parents are fairly neglectful, etc. The circumstances of his life will feel pretty familiar to anybody that felt on the outside as a teenager, which is a great starting place for a character, but begins to feel a little weird once you realize Jason kind of has a lot in his favor too.
See, if Jason’s life is a crap sandwich, it comes with a side of really good french fries, a tall glass of ice cold lemonade, and is served by a cute waitress, and actually the sandwich just has roast beef and cheddar on it, and the crap is on the bottom of his shoe (go with me on this, it’ll make sense). It isn’t that he doesn’t have problems. His problems are real. It’s just that to the reader Jason feels like the kind of kid that is too young and inexperienced to be grateful for anything. He attends an outstanding school thanks to some big sacrifices by his parents, he does have a loyal friend and a young lady that caught his eye, he’s got access to a little bit of money, he has the time and freedom to play a bunch of video games for hours at a time with a VR helmet, stuff like that.
Oh! That’s right! Awaken Online is the game Jason plays on its release day for hours after getting expelled from school (yeah). The game touts a killer AI that builds a unique story arc for each player dependent on their personal characteristics and decisions and immerses the player in a gaming experience unlike any other.
When Jason begins playing Awaken Online, he is pissed. The AI picks up on this, and rather than taking him down the traditional starting quests for new players, offers him some unusual options that would skew his character towards evil, and yes, that cat from the cover is a legitimate part of that. Jason, mad as Hell and not taking it anymore, elects not to follow the path of righteousness he would normally take in this type of game. Instead, he takes the path that rocks.
And that path does indeed rock. Jason seemingly plays a different style of game from everyone else, taking risks and pursuing side quests that seem pretty weird, even to him. His successful completion of said quests provide him with some unique abilities. While his character, which he creatively names “Jason,” isn’t particularly strong according to the game stats, he makes the most of his odd assortment of abilities and rapidly gains infamy and notoriety throughout the world of Awaken Online.
Jason’s internal monologue deals a lot with the idea that before playing the game, Jason was a pushover that allowed life to act upon him, but while playing the game Jason is assertive in making choices that dictate his own fate. I’m not sure that’s really Jason’s character arc though. After finishing the book, Jason’s arc feels more chaotic. “Catharsis” is an appropriate subtitle for the book, because a lot of Jason’s motivations stem from his sense of pseudo-justice and curiosity over just how far he can push things in the game in his favor while seeking an outlet for his anger. If anything, Jason’s arc may be one of going from a youth that is easily hung up on difficulties, to a person that finds freedom in allowing himself to screw things up even more and just seeing where things go. There’s a nuance there that’s a lot of fun to watch from the sidelines.
“Awaken Online: Catharsis” is Travis Bagwell’s first book, which is pretty impressive. I’ve read other books thanks to Amazon Prime from first time authors, and Bagwell’s pretty polished. The book is paced well, and follows three distinct narrative threads: Jason’s real life, Jason’s game life, and backstory on the two developers that created the game’s AI. Spoiler alert – the AI is more than it seems. The three narrative threads tie a coherent story together in a way I normally wouldn’t expect from somebody releasing their first novel.
As a person that is not familiar with RPGs at all, I appreciated that Bagwell also does a nice job of making concepts like leveling up and selecting quests to feel accessible to a reader like me. It makes for an interesting device when a character goes through their literary arc while also getting in-game notifications about skill and ability increases that their character earns. It kinda works better than it feels like it should, especially when the character gets to pick for themselves how they are going to change.
All said, this is one of the more enjoyable books that I’ve read in a while, and stands far above the majority of free reading options available thanks to Amazon Prime. Bagwell brings some fun ideas to the table and is definitely an author to watch in the future. “Catharsis” sets the stage for a compelling series, and if you play your cards right you can read “Catharsis” from Prime Reading, and then use your monthly Unlimited selection on “Awaken Online: Precipice” to continue the story. After that, be a pal and buy book three when it gets released like I’m planning to do. We don’t want Travis Bagwell to end up underpaid like our old pal from Hell Ron, you know? That just wouldn’t be right.