Bryce O'Connor's Iron Prince.
I normally approach scifi with skepticism. I studied astrophysics, and physics is a harsh mistress that is all to easy to try and abuse in works of science fiction. There’s one surefire way around this - magical tech. Or in this case, alien tech that is so advanced it might as well be magic. And with the soft scifi setting established, this allows Bryce to draw the best from fantasy, the best from LitRPG levelling, and combine them to make one of the best progression fantasy stories I have read in years.
Basic premise time: unhealthy youth with burning desire to prove himself gets granted a special CAD (this is the alien tech, explained better in the actual novel of course). Using this CAD, he gets thrown into a special academy with his best friend, and for him its a race against time to move from the bottom of the pack up to the top.
What makes the book so addicting is the constant tension and resolution. Bryce manages to hold the reader on a knifes edge where any more tension and you’d get exhausted, any less and you might dare think about putting the book down.
Frankly, I don’t know how he does it. Bryce, if you ever read this, tell me your secret.
In the end, you don’t put the book down, because that would be disrespectful to the protagonist, Reidon Ward, who’s frustration and determination you feel like heat shimmering off the pages. You viscerally want him to win, and sweat alongside him when situations turn from bad to worse.
Despite the book holding a special place in my heart, I can’t declare it absolutely perfect. Like an annoying professor who always marks assignments just shy of 100%, if I have to pick something that I wish were tweaked I’d have to call out two things.
First would have to be the main antagonist, Grant, who seems just unrealistically dickish. His first interaction with the MC is incredibly overblown, and he might as well have just tattooed “Antagonist” on his forehead and start punching puppies in front of everyone.
Second, a source of tension in the book is Rei’s admittance and continuing position at this prestigous academy. Staff debate whether or not they should even admit a student who has an extraordinary, unprecedented ability in one area, because he current lacks in another. Even though the nature of the first ability means the second is not a concern. Sorry I’m being vague here, I’m trying not to spoil anything. But for an analogy, imagine if a physics school was thinking about rejecting Einstein, despite his mathematical and physics genius, because he wasn’t fluent enough in English, despite him being conversation and only starting the learn the language last week. You and I would look at each other and nod, agreeing that in another week this would be a solved problem and we’d have a physics genius on hand. Yet some of the staff in the book are in favour of just kicking Einstein to the curb.
Thankfully, both of those issues don’t impact the journey and development of Rei nor his closest friends, and as such they remain background issues I happily let my mind skip over whilst I flick through page after page after page. Great fight scenes, great main cast, great tension and conflict.