I tend to try to look for the positives and potential of a work when reviewing it, and even if it is not for me I at least attempt to think about how it might appeal to someone else.
With King of the Labyrinth… I'm really struggling with all of the above.
I guess I could point out the small number of positives that are here. First off, the initial premise is a good hook: what if a boss monster in a game-like dungeon tried to break free of the rigid role it had been placed in? What if it sought more for itself, and defied the rules of the world to be more than a loot-dropping antagonist in a single room? That's a strong enough starting point to roll with, and Shien Bis does a good job of portraying the primal tendencies of such a creature. We do get a good sense of the animalistic nature of the minotaur and the very direct way in which its mind works: how it assesses threats, how it sees others, etc.
Without spoiling too much, there's also a legacy component to this. As time passes and more and more adventurers become involved, it becomes increasingly clear that the minotaur is much more than a monster-of-the-week type threat. The minotaur's influence on not just the labyrinth but the surrounding town and eventually the entire kingdom is a crucial element of the story. As word of its exploits spread to the surrounding areas, the minotaur begins to take on a reputation and life of its own, becoming a wedge in kingdom-shaping political maneuvers.
Both of those are interesting and engaging ideas. I just wish there were more than, well, two great ideas in the nearly 200 pages of this volume.
If I could summarize my experience with this volume in one word, I would say that it is a slog. The characterization of all but maybe two cast members is thin or non-existent. None of the dialogue is particularly engaging. The battle descriptions are rote and uninteresting. None of the political maneuvering is complex enough to be exciting, nor are the actors involved characterized enough to lend weight to those events.
Most egregious to me is the entire structure of King of the Labyrinth's worldbuilding. Traditional fantasy stories, of course, have no shortage of ridiculous elements and tropes, such as dragons, treasure hoards, magic weapons, etc. But even fantasy stories based on game worlds often have to come up with fictional justifications for why things work in such a game-ified manner. There is something of an art to creating a consistent internal logic that explains why, say, character A is a high-level cleric or why monsters are often hanging around in dungeons protecting powerful loot.
In other fantasy stories more in the vein of isekai tales or Litrpg works, half the fun is the metafictional aspect of characters being aware that they are in a game world. They very clearly see that monsters have attack AI, understand that they are using weapons with game-like stat boosts, and expect to gain special abilities at certain class levels. Much like sports-focused series, there is an engaging thrill to seeing characters maneuvering the arbitrary game rules. And readers who are also gamers can find it fun to see characters experiencing similar struggles and triumphs that they do when playing games.
King of the Labyrinth tries to combine elements of both traditional fantasy and Litrpg-style fantasy but, in my opinion, uses an approach that brings out the worst aspects of both.
King of the Labyrinth is dead serious, and takes itself at face value much like a traditional fantasy story. Yet, nearly every aspect of its setting is structured like a Litrpg game-like world. Characters unironically say things like “He was a 98th level warrior” and “I will drink a yellow potion to regain my stamina.” Monsters literally drop big bundles of coins when they die, and adventuring parties go “Let's go kill the metal dragon for the 90th time and we can get some good drops.” It all feels like an unfunny, all-too-serious Let's Play of a group doing MMO raids.
This could be alleviated if the characters were interesting, but no luck there. Most of the characters use what I can only describe as Horror Movie 101 character logic. Everyone makes the worst possible choices, constantly, for dozens of pages at a time. I won't spoil anything, but at one point a high-level character puts on stat-reducing gear, treks up through 50 dungeon levels using their worst items, and says that they can't wait to get back to the surface to see their wife and children again. Folks, I won't spoil anything, but I'll let you take a wild guess as to what happens to them.
It might not be so bad if the game-like setting is interesting, or if it's depicted in an engaging manner. Instead, it's just… a game, described with the sort of bland disinterest of a low-effort documentarian. “The wolf died and dropped ten brass coins and a red potion” is simply not what I consider engaging prose. Characters talk about the game-like aspects of the world without irony or dramatic heft, and it is the same thing happening again and again for the first half of the volume or so. The following scene plays out a least a dozen times:
”All right, let's go do this thing. We will be fine, because there is no way a monster can do X.”
The minotaur did X.
The minotaur killed everyone.
I wish I was exaggerating, but there is really no excitement to the text either. I'm sorry if I am not shocked or engaged when the minotaur uses his Warcry ability twice in one fight after I've just been told that ‘the minotaur has a powerful Warcry ability that it can use once per fight’ two sentences earlier – it means nothing to me as a reader.
The vast majority of the page count is this sort of joyless reporting of game events as if they are sensible real-world happenings. Heated adventurer arguments at the job board, descriptions of magic swords that read simply as ‘this gives +30% stamina’, high-level monster killers facing the minotaur alone and overconfident with the expected outcomes…. yeah, get used to reading that over and over again.
In its last thirty or so pages, King of the Labyrinth finally starts to pick up and introduce a more dynamic world. The passage of time, slightly more character investment, and political machinations of the kingdom's major players all finally start to change up the rote repetition that dominates the rest of the volume. But by then it was too little too late for me. I was just ready to be done and move on, and unless you enjoy reading MMO patch notes for games you don't play, I suggest you do the same.