Vivian Vande Velde is one of the best fantasy writers out there (and one of my favorites if you couldn’t tell already). Her stories are believable and populated with characters you’ll remember long after the book is closed. They are also surprisingly believable given that they are fantasies. Such is the case with Heir Apparent (2004), which takes place in some undisclosed future time. Despite the short amount of time spent in the story’s “present,” Vande Velde manages to describe enough of the the environment to make it feel real. The problems start for the narrator, Giannine, when the automated bus won’t let her off at her chosen stop (a game store). Like all good characters, fourteen-year-old Giannine easily circumvents the computer and makes her way back to the Rasmussem Gaming Center.
The story gets into gear when Giannine enters a full-immersion virtual reality game (by the same name as the title of the book) to compete to rule a kingdom. Giannine is just getting the hang of the game when she receives some bad news from the owner of the gaming center: Protesters outside of the gaming center (from Citizens to Protect Our Children ironically enough) stormed the entrance and damaged the equipment. Giannine can’t get out of the game unless she wins. The problem? If Giannine loses she might not be able to leave the game environment at all–because she’ll be dead.
As you might have guessed by that little summary, most of this story revolves around Giannine playing the game over and over as she tries to win. This creates a lot of repetition–as we watch Giannine go through the same scenarios repeatedly with varying levels of success. (If this sounds similar to the premise of “Groundhog Day” that’s because it is.)
Happily, instead of seeming redundant, the story/plot remains interesting. Vande Velde artfully describes the gameplay so that readers won’t get bored. This makes the book go by really fast. Even though Vande Velde covers the same territory multiple times, she never gets redundant. Each run through reads slightly differently and covers a different part of the story. Similarly, since Giannine also loses the game several times, Vande Velde creates pseudo-alternative endings for the story by showing Giannine pitfalls as she works her way towards a win.
The characters are extremely interesting and the premise–while not totally new–is unique, as is the author’s handling of it. The story features Vande Velde’s usual humor throughout. What it doesn’t feature is her usual ambiguous ending. The story is still open-ended but it has more closure than are found in A Well-Timed Enchantment or Companions of the Night (both also by Vande Velde and also highly recommended), which makes for a nice change. Heir Apparent also lacks the typical romantic subplot, making the novel’s appeal stronger for boys and placing a heavier focus on the action and relations between all of the characters (instead of the main character and her romantic interest).
Heir Apparent is a timely book looking forward to what video games might one day be while also reminding readers that there’s no harm in a good game–as long as overzealous protesters don’t get in the way at least.
Possible Pairings: Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci, Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Alter Ego by Robbie Cooper, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly, So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin