The Beast Within – Heart of Fire by Michael J Ward.

heart-of-fireRegular followers of my blog, if there are any, will know that I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the Destiny Quest series, Legion of Shadow. They may also remember that Michael Ward is an old school friend. A friend I used to play RPGs and generally geek out with. It was no surprise to me that Mike had been able to turn his hand to generating such a wonderful reboot of that mainstay of my formative years, the solo fantasy gamebook.

I bought book two upon its release, but it has taken me a very long time to work my way through it. I started but stuttered to a halt before the end of Act 1. Why? Is the book no good? Not at all. Heart of Fire has an absorbing storyline and makes for an addictive read. What it isn’t, is relaxing.

Like many people these days, I am extremely time poor. I have three children, one of them just over a year old. I’m a stay at home dad, meaning I’m often sleep deprived and exhausted (and more often that not covered in something that may or may not be related to a gelatinous cube). Most of my spare time is devoted to reading. If I find five minutes with nothing pressing to do, out comes the book and I read a couple of pages.

I love being transported to another world, whether it be fantastic, historical or contemporary. But until reading Heart of Fire, I hadn’t really thought about the contract one enters into when buying a book. For paying up your money, you are expecting to be entertained, but not only that, you surrender control to the author. It is their job to control character, plot and action and how successful they are determines how much you enjoy the book. Any decision making is taken care of by the author and his creations. In Heart of Fire the destiny of the lead character is in the reader’s hands and it’s a burden that cannot be taken lightly!

As I was determining the fate of my character, every entry became a source of angst. In a conventional novel, you get to see everything; all of the author’s best work. There aren’t chunks of plot you don’t get to read. When you have to choose your own pathway you risk missing something interesting. You could bypass the best scenes in the whole book. Worse, you might be eaten. Such are the myriad choices that faced my character, I couldn’t handle the responsibility.

I’d been feeling guilty for a number of months about not finishing this book. It sat on the shelf glowering at me, sulking at having been put aside. A chance Twitter conversation and the opportunity of a long childless train journey, saw me pull it down and vow to tackle the demons that lay within. As with LoS, I read the meat of the book, without participating in all the combats. To do so would add hours and hours of reading time, and in any case what would be the point, I would only cheat anyway!

I imagine played to it’s fullest extent, HoF could claim to be have the best pound per minute enjoyment ratio of any form of entertainment. For little more than the price of a cinema ticket you a treated to hours and hours of playing time. But herein lies my worry for Mike and his series. Who is it for? I touched on this in my LoS review, but I think the optimum reader for the Destiny Quest books is a rare breed.

Anybody who loved the Fighting Fantasy books as a child, is going to want to pick up these books, but the chances are, assuming they’ve learned how to talk to women at some point, they are now married with children. From my own experience there isn’t the time to clack dice all day. To attract newer readers, DQ has got to compete against the might of the computer game, something that in all its guises lays waste to puny real-life games. There are successes in this area. Magic the Gathering still goes strong, and some RPGs still pull in their audience manual after manual, but these are rare and they are niche.

The Destiny Quest books require dedication, and in the modern world such devotion is rare. Which is a shame, as they are bloody good. Act Two of Heart of Fire is possibly the pinnacle of interactive fiction. It’s strands are myriad and they dovetail seamlessly, weaving in and out from each other. One path followed, means another lost forever, with real consequences to your character’s destiny. I know this because I chased nearly all of them down, a task that proved to be just as exciting as finding the magic items.

Ward’s method for allowing his alternative threads, is innovative, simple and leads to some thrilling decisions. The opening act sees you choosing sides between religious factions. Which side to choose is morally ambiguous, and I found it difficult to decide whose worldview was more in keeping with who I wanted my character to be. These decisions aren’t just about making sure you get the best gear, but about your character’s moral code. It’s riveting stuff. Ward has been clever enough to ensure that all shades are catered for.

Being wholly good, won’t send you down the easiest pathway; being Garion ain’t gonna make life easy. Similarly, playing an extra from Prince of Thorns won’t bring the best rewards either. And so it shouldn’t. Because we’re all complex people. By putting ‘You’ at the heart of the story, Ward has created one of the most human characters seen in fantasy fiction. This might seem an obvious observation, but never before when reading this type of book, have I felt that who the ‘You’ was actually made much difference to their experience of the game.

Act three is a bit more of a procession. Ward still hasn’t been able to get away from the problem of lining up his monsters for you to knock them down. The way the combats are stacked, I imagine they are tough to get through, and I guess there is a risk the enterprise grinds to a halt in a hail of dice throwing. Once again there are boss monsters, and once again I fail to see the point of them. As I said in my review of LoS, in a computer game the challenge is different every time. Here it’s all about getting the numbers. You will eventually, so why keep rolling?

That said, there is still some good stuff. This book introduces the possibility of teaming up with your hero form the previous book (though only to roll dice with). Also there are some interesting stacked entries, such as a chase scene, where success in each entry prevents a sticky end. It’s about as dynamic an experience as reading a book can get. For the item accumulators out there, Ward has introduced the concept of crafting. Allowing you to build your own artefacts and spell books.

As a whole the book is perhaps too long. The first two acts in particular are huge, giving masses of gameplay, but you do have to be prepared to commit lots of time to complete them. To do so is in no way a chore, but I can’t help thinking with a small amount of tweaking, each Act could have been released as a smaller entity, in a more serial-like format. But then, what do I know?

The amount of work Mike Ward has put into this novel is staggering. It’s complexity is testament to his dedication to delivering something special, that will delight even the most jaded of gamers. On the whole he has been extremely successful. The novel’s conclusion offers a genuine crossroads, and a humdinger of cliffhanger. Whilst your quest is concluded, your destiny is far from fulfilled. The journey continues in the forthcoming The Eye of Winters Fury, and the storm clouds are building.

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