Imagine a role-playing game that uses weaponized Kantian metaphysics to tackle the legacy of Taiwan’s colonial past. Make the main character a gaming-obsessed student haunted by the death of a dear mentor, and you get a coming-of-age story told as a historically informed urban fantasy – where the stakes are terrifyingly real.
Cheng Yi-hao is a college student majoring in literature who spends his free time playing tabletop RPGs, attending kendo exercises with his best friend Hui, and hanging out at the local game shop. When he receives an invitation to be one of twenty trial users of the “Deity Series”, an intriguing new product from Kuang-Shih Technology offering supernatural powers via a god-like personal assistant, he only hesitates a moment before signing the NDA. The device turns out to establish a link between his mind and a keepsake of his choice (dubbed an “Offering” in the instructions) and projects an AI avatar – the god, whom he names Diaolong.
While Yi-hao is still familiarizing himself with Diaolong’s capabilities, he receives a warning that he’s in grave danger. Testers are being stalked, attacked, and kidnapped, and rumors of a beast man rampaging through Taipei may have something to do with it. At a hastily called meeting, he meets other testers whose gods have a wide range of capabilities, some more obviously useful than others, from invisibility, spatial duplication, and material fabrication to divination, spirit communication, and music. Although the testers don’t quite trust each other, they decide after a heated debate that cooperation is their only option – and that attack is the best form of defense.
When the meeting concludes, Kagami Shizuka, a student from Japan whose father is in Taiwan on business, pulls Yi-hao aside and informs him that the true power of her god isn’t music but teleportation, a revelation that proves valuable when one group member is abducted during the group botched attack on company HQ. Shizuka teleports Yi-hao into the copy world the enemy has created where, as telegraphed by the prologue and the unusual interactions between the two earlier in the book, he discovers that his friend Hui has been tracking down and defeating other testers with the aid of his god of fighting. The two duel in the copy world, a deserted downtown commercial center, in a sequence that involves gods stolen from other captured testers: powers of telekinesis, hallucination, and rampant plant growth. It’s a spectacular battle that Hui doesn’t want to win (he’s not fighting of his own free will), so he engineers a situation that allows Yi-hao and Shizuka to flee the copy world with his god’s Offering, his treasured kendo sword.
After this first battle, as the question of who is to blame – and who might be a mole – threatens to tear the group apart, the danger is no longer an abstract fear: their opponents have the ability to extract gods and render their former masters comatose. A second attempt fares no better than the first. Yi-hao falls into enemy hands and is rescued just in the nick of time by Shizuka and her bodyguard Mizukami Toyoya. Snippets of intel gained from these raids mean they haven’t been a total loss, but the contradictory information leaves the bigger picture frustratingly opaque. From Mizukami they learn that the technology, which enables thoughts to directly alter the fabric of reality via Kantian things-in-themselves, was stolen from JMM, a private mining company whose largest shareholder is Shizuka’s family. But info from Kuang-Shih tells a different story: an attempt two decades earlier to create an omniscient homunculus based on medieval alchemical principles left behind twenty fragments that can bestow supernatural powers on human subjects.
In a quiet moment, Yi-hao and Shizuka bond over loss. Shizuka grew up feeling like an outcast because her family hated her Taiwanese mother – whom she recently learned may have been murdered on her father’s orders when she was very young. Yi-hao’s mother died three years ago, robbing him not only of a beloved parent but of the person most instrumental in fostering his love of gaming. For Yi-hao, the prospect that he can’t trust Shizuka complicates his growing feelings for her, but aided by the patient counsel of his god Diaolong, he realizes that he doesn’t want to treat her merely as an asset in a game and resolves to protect her at any cost.
The group’s third attack on the company is another failure: they arrive at the scene of a bloodbath and watch in horror as Shizuka’s father Kagami Masato execute the CEO. Now out of options, they’re relieved to make contact with the retired CEO of Kuang-Shih who vid-chats them from his home in England to lay out the back story:
What began as an occult Axis engineering project in the Kinkaseki mines near Ruifang to gain homunculus-assisted precognition continued after WWII as part of the ROC’s civil war effort and later as a bulwark against Communism. Waning NATO support forced the company to seek out other sources of funding, leading to an alliance with the mining company’s Japanese successor. The testers are descendants of the twenty people chosen to provide DNA blueprints for the human abstraction required to interface with the essence of the cosmos, and their presence is necessary to revive the homunculus.
Armed with this information, the group finally have a clear end goal: they must unite the homunculus fragments to revive the omniscient, omnipotent being – and prevent it from falling into Japanese hands. The lab, hidden deep within the mining facility now famous as the “Ruins of the 13 Levels”, has been sustained by the alchemical principles behind its construction and continues to be serviced by a phantom train running along the disused Shenao Line. Once again the Japanese are one step ahead of them, but Shizuka confronts her father and, having realized that she herself is her father’s Offering and the source of his power, shoots herself. Mizukami unexpectedly kills Masato, setting up a final, epic duel with Yi-hao in the bowels of the mining facility, while a healing god goes to work saving Shizuka.
Things wrap up quickly after that. After the group briefly revive the homunculus to put everything back to normal, they received the ominous news that Kuang-Shih’s new owners are demanding they hand over their gods.
Despite its door-stopper length, the novel moves along at a fast clip, alternating intense strategy sessions with gripping action scenes where new revelations topple seemingly sound constructions of logical inferences. A gamer’s outlook permeates the entire narrative: all choices are preceded by a thorough assessment of risks and have a distinct, quantifiable goal in mind; where information is incomplete, convincing arguments win the day; and characters explicitly name-check semi-cooperative deduction games like Shadows Over Camelot and Lupus in Tabula. In an afterword, author Xiao Xiang Shen reveals that he first ran the scenario as a role-playing game before revising it into a novel a decade later, by which point the resumption of service on the abandoned Shenao branch line of the title forced the book to be a period piece, with flip phones, BBSs, grainy video, and fax machines charmingly anchoring the narrative in 2009 Taipei.
The inclusion of a few “interludes” in other characters’ voices gives insight into the complicated back stories they keep hidden – whether by choice or coercion – from Yi-hao and the other testers: beast-man Su Yu-lung grew up during the mine’s golden age in the ’70s and wants to prove that his life was meaningful rather than just an embarrassing relic of Cold War thinking; Wei Chih-ching used her divining god to win the lottery and save her family from ruthless loan sharks but became disillusioned by the temptations of wealth; double-agent Yan Chung-shu, weighed down by guilt, entered into a bargain that could create a universe-destroying paradox if the homunculus were revived; Kagami Masato, unable to protect his beloved wife from the machinations of his ruthless family, felt the only way to protect his daughter was to feign not caring about her at all.
But ultimately it’s Yi-hao’s story, and as he navigates a shifting network of alliances and rivalries, he learns to appreciate people for more than just their strategic value. The evolution of his oft-stated “victory condition” to take into account the people he loves rather than simply the rules of the game subtly shifts the trajectory of the plot as well, leading to a climactic duel with a powerful rival, ostensibly for control of all of the gods, where his triumph hinges on the realization that they both share the same underlying goal – Shizuka’s safety and happiness rather than immense cosmic power.
The eventual revival of the homunculus is a more muted affair, little more than an opportunity to reverse all of the damage suffered during the entire ordeal and restore status quo – except for Yen Chung-shu, whose very real death robbed the homunculus of an essential means of anchoring it to the human universe for more than a few brief minutes. And then there’s scarcely time to breathe before hostile forces are agitating for control of the gods, an unsettling conclusion that invites parallels to Taiwan’s unresolved position on the geopolitical stage even as it leaves the door open for another campaign.