YA fans will be taken by Who We Are in Real Life (Groundwood Books), the new novel by Victoria Koops. It's a story of role playing games, romance, and epic adventures that take place in-game and IRL.
Darcy and her two moms have moved to Unity Creek, a small prairie town that is worlds apart from her previous life in the city. Despite some awful exposure to homophobia and prejudice, and the gaming buddies that she misses terribly, Darcy finds a new friend in a kind, quiet boy named Art, and joins his Dungeons & Dragons game.
When they're in school, Art is happy to go unseen and unnoticed, but he comes alive during their weekly D&D campaigns. Meeting Darcy pulls him out of his routine, and changes his life in wonderful and surprising ways. He comes out of his shell and finds that he's full of fight when he has to clash with his father, a powerful conservative who holds great influence in the town, and wants to quash a queer-straight alliance begun by Darcy and her friends.
While Art and Darcy must find the courage to stand up against certain elements in the town, their D&D characters likewise join to fight corruption the world of Durgeon's Keep, leading to a a collision between fantasy and reality.
Read more in this passage from the novel, which we're very happy to share today on Open Book!
Excerpt from Who We Are In Real Life by Victoria Koops
I bounce from the skills list to their corresponding abilities and
erase previous ability scores. Do I want a plus-eight on every
Stealth roll? I’d have to spend all the points in my Dexterity
ability to do that.
“I took a feat this level,” Alex says from behind the library
counter. He’s supposed to be working, but he’s trying to help
me level up my character. To be fair, only one person has come
into the small town library to pick up books this entire shift.
“Yeah, you’ve mentioned that once or twice.”
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He flips through the Player’s Handbook. Feats are special
level-ups; flavorful, but not really practical. No matter how
many times I explain that to Alex, he always suggests that
I take something ridiculous, like Tavern Brawler or Lucky,
whenever we level up. I’d rather spend my point increase on
I’ve played the same tiefling rogue, or variations of that
character, since we started playing Dungeons & Dragons after
school in grade seven. That was more than four years ago now. Roman is charismatic and dashing, a real silver-tongue,
and the de facto leader of our party. Pretty much everything
“You should take a feat this time, too. How about
“Roman doesn’t even have a ranged weapon.” I take the
Handbook from Alex’s hands. “I’m just going to take the ability
score upgrade like a normal person. That’ll put my Dex at a
“Where’s the fun in that?” He pulls out his phone. In
T-minus five seconds he’ll be distracted by TikTok.
Five. Four. Three. Two —
Alex slams his hands on the library desk. “Did you hear
about the new doctor?!”
I pitch my pencil in surprise. The graphite HB lands some-
where in the rows of dusty books, lost forever in the abyss of
I stare murder at Alex. He’s my best friend. He might even
be my only friend, but half the time I want to throttle him.
“What the hell?”
He smiles, a devilish smirk that only fuels my annoyance.
The expression looks like Kastor, the wizard Alex plays in
game. IRL, Alex is average height and medium build, with
light brown hair that’s always covered by a beanie. Kastor is so
old that even Alex doesn’t know the wizard’s true age. Really,
that’s just lazy character creation. An old man with amnesia
and the strength of a teenager? Please.
He shakes his head in mock disapproval. “Hell? Watch
your mouth, Preacher Boy. What would your father say?”
“He’s not a preacher. Besides, hell isn’t a swear. It’s biblical.”
“And the difference is?”
“Lots.” I push back my chair. “Did you know that even
linguists and historians don’t know the etymology of the
f-word? There are theories that it might be an acronym but
others think it simply means ‘to strike.’ Hell, on the other
hand, has a very clear definition, and Dad says that if it’s in
the Bible, it’s fair game.”
“Nerrrrrrd!” Alex hollers from the front desk as I root
around in the stacks for my pencil. The stupid thing probably
rolled under a bookshelf or something. Hopeless.
“You’re one to talk.”
“My grandma says your dad has more influence in this
town than the whole church board combined.”
I find a dollar, but no pencil. I give up. “Not true.”
Alex laughs. He sounds like a donkey when he laughs.
“Where is Father Bailey these days, anyway?”
Dad’s in Dallas this week. His last email said that he
should be home by the weekend if all the talks go well, or
maybe the weekend after that. He didn’t even bother to erase
the corporate signature at the bottom of the email: Chief of
Legal Counsel, Marcus Bailey, LLM. He also reminded me
and my sister to go to church on Sunday.
I sit back down at the circulation desk. “What’s the deal
about the doctor? Did you meet him?”
“Her. They hired a female doctor.”
“And this is news because?”
“Have you heard anything about her? Anything at all?”
“Alex, I need to finish leveling up my character for
“Okay, okay,” he says. His whole body is vibrating.
If Alex was a superhero, which he is most definitely not,
but if he was, he would be the Flash. Me, I’ve always liked Aquaman — from the comics, not the movies — but apart
from our shared first name, we don’t have much in common.
I’ve never even been to the ocean.
“She’s a lesbian!” he shouts. “As in, she sleeps with other
He waits for a reaction, but I’m stuck on why he’d think
this is more important to me than leveling up my character.
“So, she moved here from the city. We saw them moving
into the old Mayor House just down the street from us today.
There were the two lesbians and a daughter. I think she’s about
our age. Do you think they used a turkey baster?”
I don’t say anything.
“Anyway, my grandma and I went to say hi. The doctor
introduced all of them. When we got home, Grandma said
the clinic must be desperate. I got a look at the daughter too.
She looks like a totally normal teenager.”
I try to focus on the character sheet in front of me.
“Can you believe that we have a gay doctor?”
“I don’t really get why this is such a big deal to you.” I pack
up my character sheet without looking up. We always leave
a little bit early on Thursdays to make it to Game on time.
“Go lock the door, we’re wrapping up this quest tonight, and
Michelle will kill us if we’re late.”
I make a mental note of the changes I want to make to
Roman’s character sheet as we pull into Michelle’s driveway.
Life’s been so much easier since I got my license. Walking
to Game every week was a total drag, especially because my
dad is never around to drive me or my sister anywhere. Not
that he would if he were around — he doesn’t 100 percent
approve of D&D.
Alex and I head to the side door of Michelle and Tyler
Anderson’s house. A gust of wind rips through my hoodie, a
reminder that summer is gone. Winter is coming.
We knock, but only to be polite, before walking in.
Various greetings echo up to us from the basement. We
kick off our shoes and go down to join them.
Michelle and Tyler and their friend Robert are all crowded
around a gaming table Tyler made for Michelle last Christmas.
The chestnut table is solid with a slim LED TV mounted
flat in the center. Michelle sits behind a laptop, her orange
cat’s-eye glasses on the tip of her nose as she pulls up this
week’s map. On her right, Tyler is lining up a row of painted
miniature heroes and monsters. He picks out a female paladin
with elf ears and sets her in front of him: his character, Moira
of Tyr. Across from him is Robert. IRL, Robert’s a mechanic,
but in our campaign, he plays as Bearpuncher the barbarian.
Alex and I sit in our usual spots, and after a few minutes
of rustling backpacks, sliding papers and clattering pencils,
everyone is ready. Well, mostly.
Alex is still telling Robert about his newest Kastor-inspired
antic, so I jab him in the arm. He stops, mid-explanation.
Michelle smiles at the two of us and points to the deep green
forest map that illuminates the screen between us.
“You guys ready for this?” She selects a red dragon from
the line of miniatures in front of her and places the figurine
on the digital map.
“Bring it on,” Alex says.
I slip into character. Roman takes over. “We’re ready.”
The forest was burning. The tiefling rogue Roman swiped
a bead of sweat from his horned brow. Smoke burned his
In this moment, his life wasn’t measured in years or days, or
even in minutes. Survival meant clinging to his next heartbeat,
jumping behind a burning tree for cover. If he wanted to live
through this, he needed to resist the exhaustion in his bones.
Fire licked up the trunks of old pines and gnawed at the
deadfall surrounding him. From his hiding spot, Roman glanced
toward the source of the inferno — a red dragon — and what
he saw made him curse in an ancient, gnarled language.
The dragon’s long neck whipped side to side, and with
each angry movement, the monster pushed Roman’s friends
closer to the burning woods. Soon the others would be trapped
between the dragon’s jaws and a wall of fire.
He sprinted from the shadows, dagger in hand. As Roman
collided with the dragon’s extended neck, the tip of his blade
found a soft spot — an exposed knot of muscle where a larger
blow had knocked away the dragon’s scaled armor — and he
thrust with all his remaining strength. The dragon’s cry of pain
rattled the trees and shook the ground.
“The river!” Roman shouted, his voice lost in the mighty
roar. He was already scrambling back toward the water, and
as he ran, he waved his arms. If his friends couldn’t hear him,
he prayed they would see him.
He crashed into the forest river, and dived. The water
was freezing against his soot-streaked skin. He broke the
surface with a gasp, and before he could open his eyes, he
heard the clanking of armor. Pushing wet hair back from
his face, Roman watched the others follow him out of the
Moira — a half-elf paladin from across the sea — pulled an
aging human wizard with her into the river. Kastor Wolfgang
Tom Tiberias Gambon looked as though he had one foot in
the grave, his head lolling onto Moira’s shoulder. Roman bit
the inside of his cheek. As she ran, Moira cast a healing spell,
and Kastor’s eyes fluttered open.
“Where’s Bearpuncher?” Roman called.
Moira shook her head, the incantation on her lips dying.
Roman scrambled to his feet, heart hammering as he
searched for the last of their party. When Bearpuncher the
Barbarian — a hulking, seven-foot wild man — emerged
with his arms pumping at his sides and a battle-ax in one fist,
Roman sagged with relief. Unfortunately, time slipped again
and there was no pause to celebrate.
Behind Bearpuncher, the dragon pursued. Unhinging a
mighty jaw, the beast bared row upon row of sharp, jagged
teeth. Roman saw the spark of flame snap and crackle in the
dragon’s gullet. Another stream of deadly fire would pour from the dragon’s mouth; Bearpuncher would become a pile
of ash in moments.
“Go for the eyes!” Roman called, his throat raw.
Moira whispered the incantation for another spell, and
this time a brilliant white light flashed before the dragon’s
eyes. The monster reared its head and writhed as though it
could shake the magic away.
Roman surged from the riverbank, water sluicing off his
leather armor. He reached for his only remaining weapon,
a rapier given to him by his father. The blade sang as he
unsheathed the thin sword.
Roman snarled, “Now, Bearpuncher!”
Yellow eyes snapped toward Roman, his command draw-
ing the dragon’s attention, just as Bearpuncher nodded and
turned his back to the monster.
Roman glanced over Bearpuncher’s shoulder, focusing on
the flat ridge between the dragon’s eyes. Just then, the beast
opened its mouth once more. If Roman didn’t succeed, his
friend wouldn’t see death coming.
Bearpuncher took a knee, his axe discarded on the ground,
and laced his meaty fingers together.
The catch of fire breath crackled in the dragon’s throat
Roman tilted forward, running harder, faster than was
natural for any human. But he was no human, and the infernal
heritage in his bloodline burned hot, as if to fuel him. Roman’s
foot landed in Bearpuncher’s waiting hand, and he heaved
Roman into the air.
Roman landed on the dragon, his rapier sinking deep into
the corner of the monster’s eye.
The death throes that gripped the dragon would have sent anyone else tumbling, but not Roman. His muscles protested
and sweat slicked his hands, but still he held fast.
It wasn’t until the rest of his company — Bearpuncher,
then Moira and Kastor — surrounded him, that Roman real-
ized the dragon had ceased to thrash.
His arms shook as he released his hold on the dead
monster, his smile just as shaky. “Now where is that prize we
In moments, the entire party was tossing gold coins from
the dragon’s cave into the air.
“With these winnings we can finally afford transport out
of Durgeon’s Keep,” Roman said, as he assessed the mountains
“We could afford a luxury caravan past the Durgeon Forest
altogether!” Kastor whooped, restored to health after several
healing draughts. His mustache quivered with excitement.
As the group counted the loot, Moira folded her arms. The
look she shot Roman pierced deeper than any of his wounds.
Shame flickered in his belly.
“May I remind you of our contract?” she said. It was a
question, but not. “We’re being paid to return the head of
the dragon, and all this treasure, to Lord and Lady Daeroot.
We’re adventurers, not common thieves.”
Roman swallowed. “The Daeroots have never laid eyes
on the dragon or the treasure, they won’t miss a few pieces.”
When that did nothing to soften Moira’s scowl, Roman
sighed and turned away from her toward a pile of treasure on
the other side of the cave. She wasn’t wrong, but she also didn’t
know how to take what she needed. She had never been left
without, forced to survive in the streets of Durgeon’s Keep.
Elves like Moira were a novelty, but Roman was a nightmare,
and had been treated as such since leaving the castle two years
A glint of fading sunlight caught a sharp edge on top of
the pile of gold. When he was closer, Roman saw the elegant
stiletto, flung carelessly as if it were a trinket. He picked up
the beautiful weapon, and as soon as his fingers closed around
the hilt, a buzz thrummed up his arm. The tingle was familiar:
magic. With a twirl and flick of his quick fingers, Roman slid
the powerful blade into his cloak. A fine replacement for the
one he had lost in the burning forest.
The rest of the day was spent loading a cart with as much
loot as they could carry and carving the dragon’s head from its
thick neck. When they had all they had been sent to collect,
they rode along the Hebenon River — the same river that
had saved them from being burned alive — back toward the
only seat of power in the Barony of Blackwood, the grim city
of Durgeon’s Keep.
The lingering light of sundown cast a warm glow down
the river and illuminated clusters of pink Hebenon blossoms
along the riverbank. Roman glowered at the path ahead.
Going back into the city was risky. He knew as much, but
they still needed to deliver the treasure to the Daeroots and
collect their payment. It was the only way they would have
enough funds to secure the services and silence needed to
escape for good. A headache began between Roman’s horns.
If they were caught, if he were recognized —
“The end?” Bearpuncher asked, the simple question pulling
Roman back from his worries.
Roman snapped the reins against his mount’s shoulders;
the horse jolted forward.
“No,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”
Excerpt taken from Who We Are in Real Life by Victoria Koops. Published by Groundwood Books. Copyright Victoria Koops, 2024.
Saskatchewan author Victoria Koops never stopped playing make-believe and often writes while wearing a tiara. Her books are full of epic adventure and swoony romance, and navigate social issues through the power of fandom and geek culture. Who We Are in Real Life is her debut novel. As a practicing counsellor, Victoria lives with her family in Treaty 4 Territory. Victoria loves to sing off-key, tease her sisters and pretend that she’ll choose a different romance the next time she plays Dragon Age: Inquisition.