24 September, 2021

Litstack Recs | Commonwealth & Otaku

Otaku by Chris Kluwe

Chris Kluwe is a former NFL player, a sharp-witted essayist (Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies), outspoken social justice warrior and avid gamer on many platforms (including painting his own gaming miniatures).
Now you can add fantasy novelist to his resume.

In Otaku, Ashley (whose avatar is known as Ashura the Terrible) is an uberleet player in the ‘Net’s Infinite Game. Her reputation is hot and the streaming feeds of her exploits are wildly popular, but in real life she’s barely making ends meet – especially when to comes to paying for her mom’s medical bills.

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Chris Kluwe

It doesn’t help that she’s young, black and female. She’s high up on the Game’s leaderboard heading for the top ranking, and that infuriates the “boardshits” – male players who threateningly hurl abuse at any female player who has the audacity to do well. Ash tries not to care, but she also knows she has to take precautions and be ready to protect herself “in the real” at any time. But when an insidious threat comes to light, borne from politics and corporate greed, Ash and her team the SunJewel Warriors – are pulled into a real-life high stakes struggle where game-like missions have
deadly consequences, not only for Ash and her team, but for all of civilization.

As a former professional athlete, Chris Kluwe knows about competition under pressure; he also knows high stakes online gaming and teamwork on both platforms, and adroitly uses that knowledge in this book. Even better, as this is fantasy, there are no holds barred in Otaku, and that commitment pays off in spades. This novel is very much like a well written video game: just as well imagined, just as “physically” challenging, just as unrealistic – and just as much completely all-immersive fun.

That’s the key – you have to give in to the tenets of online gaming to truly appreciate this book (even if you aren’t a hard core gamer). It’s not all that hard to do. In the gaming world – not only the one inside the game, but the one at the gamer’s real world fingertips – practice honed groups perform the most amazing feats against incomprehensively monstrous foes. Triumph can come against all odds, but only after many, many defeats. And anyone – anyone – can win, but not everyone can be a hero.

Yet Otaku covers so much more than this. Relationships, family, responsibility, moral ambiguity, gender bias, poverty… all of these are seamlessly addressed through the situations in which Ash finds herself,
and while there is a lot of combat in this book (extremely well realized combat, something not all that easy to do!), the “normal life” issues addressed in the book are as compelling as the in-game ones.

While in Japanese, “otaku” denotes a young person who is obsessed with a particular aspect (or aspects) of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills, in this novel, otaku is a way of life. And for those willing to enter in this tale that Chris Kluwe has dreamed up, it’s a wild ride and a fun time.

—Sharon Browning

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