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The Once King by Rachel Aaron
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it was amazing
bookshelves: arc-review-copy

ARC provided by the authors in exchange for an honest review.

4.5 stars.

Gripping and thoroughly satisfying, The Once King, concluded the FFO trilogy with yet another compulsive read.

The entire series has been incredibly fun and addictive with lots of action and humour, while packing some solid emotional punches at the same time. Tone and style-wise, FFO is similar to Aaron's earlier series like Heartstriker, Eli Monpress, and Paradox; they tended towards being lighthearted and hopeful.  While Aaron and Bach had worked together on every book she has written, this was the first time that they shared the writing process, and the result was fantastic.  So much so that I finished reading The Once King in one day, I just didn't want to put the book down.

The story picks up immediately after the ending of Last Bastion, following an incredibly hard-fought battle.  A battle which had our main characters, Tiny and James Anderson, and their friends, escaping from the glorious city of Bastion after it was taken over by the undead armies of The Once King. The odds were overwhelmingly stacked against our MCs and the possible resolution presented to them was, in all appearances, a last-resort, suicidal mission.

As I have mentioned many times before, Rachel Aaron's books were my go-to comfort reads. It was just so easy to settle in and enjoy reading her books, and the same goes for this co-written trilogy with Travis Bach. There are two types of writing that I enjoy reading. One is where the writing is so beautiful that it's a character of its own (but never purple, or overly verbose prose, please). And the other is where the writing literally vanishes into the background and the story emerges in my mind. When it comes to fantasy writing, I tend to prefer the latter because it is more cinematic and makes it more effortless to become immersed into the secondary world and all its fantastical aspects. With Aaron and Bach, it is definitely the latter style of writing which makes their books such a sheer joy to read.

Given that FFO is based on an MMORPG setting, action scenes are crucial to the narrative, and these were superbly written. There was always this sense of space in the scenes that enabled the reader to picture quite clearly what was happening and where the characters were in the midst of the fight or battle sequences.  With level-boosting armour, weapons and artifacts, these scenes were as awesome as one can get from a series which was written as a love letter to online games.

I think that being self-proclaimed geeks who are obsessed with gaming, Aaron and Bach possess an innate worldbuilding skill that really come across in these books. The mythology and lore of the gaming world of Forever Fantasy Online is rich, fascinating and well-conceived.  We get a stunning revelation about the world and why the players are trapped in FFO in the early part of the book.  To cap it all off, knowledge of its real history is pivotal to the unlocking the reasons behind The Once King's motivation and intended goal.  It was this tantalising promise of finally having the answers to these mysteries which made me finish this book so quickly.

Now, all the above would already make for a darn good read.  To elevate a story from good to great, however, one needs to have emotional investment in the characters.  I've always trusted in Aaron and Bach to create wonderful characters for me to care and root for, and I was far from being disappointed.  I found all the characters to be well-written, relatable, and quite a few of them are really likeable.  Even The Once King, the big boss in gaming speak, came across as a sympathetic villain.

Throughout the trilogy, our main characters, Tina and James, demonstrated incredible growth which felt realistic given the immensity of the challenges that they each have to face. I'll admit that I wasn't too fond of Tina whom I found too overbearing at first.  But, she has come a long way since her early days of bullying and coercing the raid parties to follow her plans.  Tina is now a leader who has gained the loyalty of her raid party and learnt the value of listening to others. Without giving away spoilers, something shocking happened halfway in the book which pushed her development even further. This was the tipping point for Tina which finally won me over.

James is, without a doubt, my favourite character, and had been since the first book as I found his arc to be more compelling than his sister's.  His empathy was that his key defining quality which highly appealed to me.  While Tina still has room to grow coming into this final volume, James' development peaked in the previous sequel. James' art of diplomacy and ability to see things from the enemy's viewpoint is his key skill, which will come to bear in finding the ultimate solution to save the world. A note for cat-lovers, there's a feline race called the Jubatus (Acinonyx jubatus is the scientific name of cheetahs) and that's the form that James took in this world.

The underlying story about these two siblings anchored what I found to be the central theme or the heart of FFO, and it's about acceptance, forgiveness and new beginnings. James, the older brother who was a failure in real life, and Tina, the younger sister who had to deal with the consequences. There was a scene involving just the two of them in Last Bastion which was very powerful, and it was gratifying to see how that has shaped their relationship in this final instalment.  Those themes I've mentioned above also extend to a few other characters as well, resulting in some touching moments which provided emotional resonance into the narrative.  There is just one minor nitpick that I have and it's that I felt that the ending was just a bit too neatly wrapped up.

From start to finish, FFO is a fun, addictive and well-crafted story with a lot of heart.  It has well-written and gripping action scenes, tight plotting and pacing, rich and fascinating worldbuilding, and most of all, stellar characterisation.  Highly recommended, especially if you're feeling weighed down by too much grimdark.

Series Review
Forever Fantasy Online: 4 of 5 stars
Last Bastion: 5 of 5 stars
The Once King: 4.5 of 5 stars
FFO Trilogy: 13.5 of 15 stars

You can purchase the book at Amazon US | Amazon UK

You can also find this, and my other reviews at Novel Notions.
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Reading Progress

October 16, 2019 – Shelved
October 16, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
October 20, 2019 – Started Reading
October 20, 2019 – Shelved as: arc-review-copy
October 20, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
October 20, 2019 – Finished Reading

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