When you think of the phrase “nerd culture” what are the main things that come to mind?
Video games, Tolkein, Game of Thrones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, big bookshelves full of fantasy and science fiction books…
Yeah, and the rest! But the main thing that will come to mind for many people is Dungeons & Dragons. This tabletop roleplaying juggernaut keeps the kids in Stranger Things busy and became so popular in the 1980s that uncool old people lost it and made a weird anti-D&D movie starring a young Tom Hanks.
Today’s book review covers Perception Check by Astrid Knight, which blends real-world issues and settings with a fantasy universe in the vein of said tabletop game sensation… a bit like that D&D cartoon from back in the day, only with less irritating unicorn mascots.
Firstly, Perception Check is a pretty mature read and covers some genuine problems that people face. Expect to find themes of loss, guilt and trauma in this one, along with some pretty hefty lies and lots of peril and combat. This is expertly balanced with fun humour, pop culture references and genuinely excellent character-building and interaction.
The story is centred around Violet, a young woman whose life was upended when her friend May was violently kidnapped in a Grand Rapids park one winter’s evening by, according to her traumatised memories, a gang of demonic entities, who dragged her into the darkness never to be seen again. After years of counselling Violet is just trying to get on with her life as best she can – until she sees one of the creatures in town one day. The creature is a dead ringer for a monster from the popular tabletop game Mages of Velmyra, called a Hellion, and this isn’t the only thing that the game and Violet’s life have in common, for she is convinced that an illustration in the sourcebook is of her taken friend, May.
With this groundwork set, and her loyal best friend Eddie introduced, Violet sets out to find more, seeking the creator of the game’s lore, Adrian Inoue, in Chicago in order to find out more. A sequence of events following this fateful meeting results in Violet, Eddie, and Eddie’s friend Jackson being transported to the world of Velmyra, in search of May and the answers they seek, guided along the way by Adrian and, eventually, a misfit gang of fantastical characters. There is also a pretty epic twist toward the end as well, so fans of a Big Reveal Scene can certainly look forward to that…
To say any more about the story would risk spoilers, suffice to say that Astrid has successfully combined an 80’s fantasy movie-style story with equal parts adult themes and modern cultural sensibilities. I found the candid and open exploration of mental health issues, gender representation (Jackson is a complex badass, as is Kai) and sexuality to deepen the story overall, and hopefully, readers who can relate to these characters would agree with me on this one too!
Overall I very much enjoyed Perception Check. Astrid has managed to craft a fun adventure tale around the bones of some heavy themes, and the overall result works very well. Strong characters and good interaction between them certainly don’t hurt it either. My favourite character props have to go to Adrian, whose sass and mysterious nature kept me invested until the end, he’s a delight!
Give this one a read, it’s a natural 20!