Review of Survival Quest: Way of the Shaman (Book One)

Survival Quest (The Way of the Shama: Book 1) by Vasily Mahanenko. This post is a spoiler-free writeup. For a complete understanding of how I review media, please see my full Review Policy.


Recap & Brief Synopsis

Survival Quest is the story of Daniel Mahan, an IT security specialist that works full-time as a bug hunter in the virtual world of Barliona. Through a series of unfortunate choices, he ends up incarcerated for a term of 8 years. The maximum penalty for hacking a government AI.

The irony is that he is to be “imprisoned” inside a full-immersion capsule that will keep him inside Barliona 24/7/365. His sentence? Breaking rocks and gathering resources at the Pryke copper mine. His only chance at a normal life is to buy his freedom for an exorbitant sum.

To earn an early release, Mahan needs a combination of reputation and surplus in-game currency… and neither is easy to acquire. Especially when you’re assigned a character class that relies on Intellect when a miner needs Strength above all other stats.

When he’s thrown into a den of 250+ convicted offenders, and every respawn equals a hard reset on his skills and experience, will Daniel achieve his early release for good behavior… or will he need to become an actual criminal just to survive?


Premise & Concept

Let me start by saying that I think the idea of “full-immersion prisons” is very compelling. You see the precursor to this in movies like Demolition Man, where prisoners are put into cryosleep and have their brain rewired for rehabilitation.

In the case of Survival Quest, the author took a classic underdog meets escape story and wrapped it neatly in a LitRPG package. If someone had told me there was a book about a guy that plays a video game about breaking rocks because he’s in prison…. I would never have read it.

With this story, Mahanenko has taken all of the disadvantages of the genre and made them into a page-turner. Yes, it’s mostly set in a copper mine. Yes, the character progression is purposely throttled. And yes, the survival plot is telegraphed in the title. None of that matters.

As you peek inside the life of a newly incarcerated prisoner, the story hooks you from page one. Survival Quest isn’t about what happens. It’s all about how it happens. Which, in my opinion, makes for a much more enjoyable experience.


Themes & Motif

Like most good survival stories, things like Morality vs. Self-preservation are always popping up throughout the narrative. Pairing that with the standard LitRPG themes like Materialism as Downfall and Self-Reliance vs. Teamwork make this a staple of the genre.

Another highlight are the protagonist’s symbolic vice-totems that start popping up after the first third. The “hoarding hamster” and the “greed-toad” are both insightful and hilarious. An excellent example of how to handle introspection with zero navel-gazing.

There’s also a fascinating look at Perception as Reality that I won’t spoil. It’s also easy to miss among all the other things happening throughout Mahan’s journey. That said, I think it will be something that you see copied in many LitRPG books to come.

For me, one line made me look at Survival Quest’s cast in an entirely different way: “The Game Developers always give the NPCs a behavior pattern and temperament that correspond to their appearance.” At halfway through the novel, you have to rethink every assumption.


Structure & Plot

All of which will probably lead to a horde of surprises in future novels… and a fun twist in this book that I won’t spoil. Each time I thought I had the plot mapped out, something unexpected would catch me off guard and keep me reading.

This book isn’t a bread-and-butter high fantasy story, and that’s a very pleasant departure from most of the LitRPG that exists in the market. There are other races, and most of the encounters are incidental rather than pivotal. And no prophesies so far, just solid groundwork.

It’s also quite a carrot that the author is using to keep things focused. The lush green forest and bustling village life are waiting just outside the mountains where Mahan swings his pick. The pull of it is tangible, and all that anticipation builds to a great payoff.

There’s no fluff or detours in Survival Quest. When you read this book (and if you’re at all interested in LitRPG, I think it’s well worth it), you’ll never find yourself skimming or chapter-hopping to get back to your favorite characters.


Character & Dialogue

The narrative is in first-person, past tense. You get the sense that Mahan’s story is almost an epistolary game log. It’s an interesting choice that makes the occasional aside from the main character feel very real. There’s also many times when the main character’s thoughts drive the story.

In most cases, that kind of thing would get edited out as “telling instead of showing.” With Survival Quest, you quickly learn to enjoy the balance between what Mahan thinks and what he says. Without confiding in someone out loud, there would be no way to share that contrast.

That doesn’t mean that the protagonist is alone. Far from it. The main character gets saddled with a bunk class and skillset, which means he’ll need all the help he can get. Everyone at Pryke has a story that brought them there… and they all have a different agenda.

The stakes are taken to another level entirely when you discover that the context for almost all of the character interactions is part of a political structure. The back-biting adds to the paranoid feeling that even if the protagonist is truthful, he may still be unreliable as a narrator. Perfect for a prison story.

Setting & Worldbuilding

As I read, I kept finding myself pausing whenever someone mentions the horizon or a landmark in the distance. The feeling of oppression and claustrophobia makes you imagine that everything is underground. A feeling that’s hard to shake even after you know it’s false.

With each turn in the story, there are little details that give you a window into how quickly Mahan’s virtual prison could evolve into a real MMORPG. Living up to his bug-hunter nature, the protagonist considers every possible choice. There are no predictable and easy paths.

Mahanenko only shows us a small piece of Barliona in this book, and it’s more than enough. The author brilliantly resisted the temptation to jam everything-but-the-kitchen-sink into the first installment. It’s clear that a great deal of thought went into the history of the virtual world.

There are a few opportune moments that show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Specific details that feel exotic and familiar at the same time. You’re drip fed in a way that gives you time to absorb the information and leaves you thirsty for more.


Market Fit & Positioning

If LitRPG had a category-defining shelf, Survival Quest would be on it. There are times when you can easily forget that you’re reading something with game mechanics, even though they are integral to the story. For me, that’s a hallmark of the genre.

You’ve got a relatable character with his back up against the wall. His situation is the result of his choices, and he is constantly working to turn things around. The world is firmly virtual, and there are a few scenes in “real-life” that create a frame story.

Given what’s happening in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this book has just the right amount of levity to keep it from being too grim. There is also an air of myth around the Shaman class that feels rooted in folklore. (Acquired legendary weapon: Tambourine! Wait… what?)

The pacing is steady and brisk. It’s written chronologically, and despite the main character spending hours in prison, you never feel trapped by this novel. Mahanenko cuts with a surgical precision that leaves you with all the right beats firing at just the right moments.


Recommendations & Invitation for Feedback

As with all of my reviews, there will be no star rating. Those classifications imply a system for measuring achievement… and I’m in no position to judge the merits of any literary work. Instead, I will give anyone that reads this book Fun +3, Story +1, and Style +5.

Survival Quest is easily worth your time and attention. If you’ve got a KU subscription, it’s a no-brainer. I tore through this book in two days… and I already have the sequel downloaded and ready to go. If not for a long list of other reviews, I’d read the entire series. Right meow.

If you’re a fan of The Great Escape, Oz, or Elantris this book is right up your alley. It’s ideal for a long commute or jet setters looking to dodge work while the WiFi is off. For anyone new to LitRPG, Vasily Mahanenko has secured his position as one of the fathers of the genre.

Now, I’ll turn it over to you. If you’ve read the book, what did you think? Did I do it justice? If you haven’t read the book yet… will you give it a try based on the review? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Benjamin Ryker

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