If you want to beat the final boss, you’ve got to level grind. Sometimes that means farming slimes, and sometimes it means eating the hearts of your enemies. Let’s fire some magic missiles at the darkness and illuminate Level Grind, by Annie Bellet.
Gamer. Nerd. Sorceress.
Jade Crow lives a quiet life running her comic book and game store in Wylde, Idaho, hiding from a powerful sorcerer who wants to eat her heart and take her powers—her ex-boyfriend Samir. Yet when dark powers threaten her friends’ lives, Jade must save them by using magic. But as soon as she does, her nemesis will find her and she won’t be able to stand up against him when he comes.
The best thing about Level Grind is undoubtably the cast of characters. I immediately came to love Jade Crow, a geeky sorceress with massive power but little training who bases her spellcasting on what she’s read in Dungeons & Dragons manuals. Her circle of friends, a diverse assortment of supernatural beings, are likewise endearing. The references and in-jokes to nerd culture fly fast and furious – “Go for the eyes, Boo!”, “Curse your sudden but inevitably betrayal!” – and each one gave me a warm glow of pleasure.
The plot is good, too – or plots, I should say. Level Grind is a collection of the first four books of The Twenty-Sided Sorceress series, though they’re brief enough that I view them more as short stories than stand-alone novels. Though the stories are tied together by the looming threat of Jade’s heart-eating ex-boyfriend Samir and her need to level grind like mad so she can be strong enough to battle him when he finally comes for her, each had its own independent story arc and antagonist.
In Justice Calling, Jade has to stop a warlock who’s been draining the life from shapeshifters to power his magic. In Murder of Crows, a vengeful ghost threatens an isolated Native American community. In Pack of Lies, an assassin targets Jade while war threatens to erupt between the local werewolf packs. And in Hunting Season, two of Samir’s apprentices start stirring up trouble using the severed head of Balor Birugderc.
I have to give the writing credit. In Pack of Lies, I rolled my eyes when Jade lost her magical knife at an inconvenient moment. But then, in Hunting Season, she learns that it is one of a pair and the enchantment on it makes it try to get lost so it can find its way to its other half – what I thought was a lazy writing convenience was actually foreshadowing. Bravo. There are a lot of small moments like that which end up coming back in a significant way, such as Jade noting the similarity of Justice necklaces to cheap jewelry sold at local tourist traps. There’s no telling how many more such parts are foreshadowing for the latter half of the series, but it seems likely it’s building up to a reveal about dragons.
If the book has a flaw, it’s that the final story isn’t a climax. The whole narrative arc of the book is about Jade building up to inevitably battle Samir; but when the book ends, he still hasn’t appeared. I suppose that’s an inevitable consequence of splitting the series across two books instead of collecting all the books in a single omnibus volume. Honestly, the individual stories are short enough that I think they’d all fit.
Still, based on the merit of the content which it does include, I can give Level Grind a big thumbs-up.
Final Rating: 4/5