If I was going to describe the modern “Isekai” genre in brief, I’d describe it as “Game-based another world fantasy.” It’s not just fantasy where a protagonist is whisked to another fantastic world from ours like with the John Carter of Mars novels, or on the anime front with El-Hazard and Magic Knight Rayearth. This is fantasy where the characters are explicitly in a world that draws inspiration to games from gaming – sometimes by drawing the characters or their psyches into an actual game (ala Sword Art Online or Log Horizon), or a world which uses the language of RPGs like with Konosuba or Grimgar: Ash and Illusions. I would argue that if not the first of these, then one of the first of this particular genre – and was done in the ’70s by a woman.
Quag Keep comes from Andre Norton – real name Alice Norton. Norton published under a male pen name because of institutional misogyny in the publishing industry during the ’30s-60s that made it hard for women to get published in SF under a female name. Misogyny in that field still persists, sadly, but in the present, the misogyny feels like it has shifted to the general societal background radiation instead of particular concentrations that refuse to let women get in the door in the first place.
In any case, what makes Quag Keep if not the first then one of the first Gaming Isekai novels is the fact that it’s also the first Dungeons & Dragons novel. The book follows a group of D&D players who are whisked into the World of Greyhawk through a series of magical figurines, and puts their consciousness into the minds of their characters, with the minds of the original players and the minds of the characters shifting in dominance over the course of the story.
That said, once we get into the world of Greyhawk itself, the story doesn’t have a lot of depth to it. The band of adventurers are bound by a Geas to travel from the City of Greyhawk to the titular Keep across a variety of terrain, fighting dangerous opponents along the way. There is no particular reason that is given for this Geas to be placed upon them, and the villain’s motivations are not particularly fleshed out well.
What is fleshed out a little better is the backgrounds and characterization of the adventurers that the players inhabit. The story is told through their perspective, and each of the characters have their own degree of backstory and prior adventures that they bring to this story, and each adventurer also has to contend with the fact that there is a second mind, with their own memories and life experiences lingering in the background of their consciousness.
The book leaves a lot of plot threads un-answered, and some hooks for a sequel that we got later in Return to Quag Keep, but that’s a topic for a later review.
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