Warcross: A Review

“Everything’s science fiction until someone makes it science fact.”

by Marie Lucover art for Warcross by Marie LuEmika Chen’s life is a constant struggle. Since her father’s death she’s been drowning in deby as she tries to pay off the medical expenses and gambling debts he left behind. Emika is a stellar hacker but thanks to the arrest on her record she can’t get any jobs near a computer. Instead she works as a bounty hunter tracking down petty criminals who do stupid things like gamble on Warcross and hustling to stay ahead of the competition.

Warcross is the one place where Emika can relax. The virtual reality game is a diversion, a competition, and place where Emika can remember what she loves: coding. With an eviction notice hanging over her head it’s also a place where she can take a big risk and hack into the opening game of the Warcross Championship to try and steal an item and erase her debt.

When the hack goes spectacularly wrong Emika thinks she’s heading for a swift arrest and jail. But instead she is whisked to Tokyo where she meets Warcross’s creator–eccentric young millionaire Hideo Tanaka–and is hired to work as a spy and bounty hunter tracking down a hacker who is threatening the Warcross world.

To cover for her real mission Emika is placed in the Wardraft and becomes part of the Championship. Winning the Championship and finding the hacker could change Emika’s life forever. Getting too close to the truth could change the world of Warcross and beyond forever in Warcross (2017) by Marie Lu.

Warcross is the first book in Lu’s Warcross duology.

Lu has once again created a well-realized and fascinating world where virtual reality and augmented reality are plausibly integrated into everyday life. This plot-driven story is fast-paced and full of action as Emika’s investigation brings her into Tokyo as well as the virtual worlds of Warcross and the Dark World typically inhabited by criminals and hackers.

The coding and gameplay aspects of Warcross can feel convenient while more than one twist will leave readers wondering if a few frank conversations between characters could have avoided many of the novel’s main conflicts. The tension of the championship and the urgency of Emika’s investigation to track down the Warcross hacker, known only as Zero, raise the stakes enough to detract from these holes in the plot.

Warcross is filled with distinct characters from a variety of backgrounds ranging from poor Hammie, a champion Thief in Warcross who uses her winnings to support her family to DJ Ren–a champion Warcross player/French DJ sensation–and Phoenix Rider team captain Asher who is American and flies through Warcross games in virtual reality while navigating the real world in a high tech wheelchair. While Emika is immediately drawn into the camaraderie and competition surrounding Warcross (not to mention drawn to enticing and mysterious Hideo) she knows she can’t let her guard down if she wants to identify Zero and beat the other bounty hunters to the prize.

The high stakes of the Warcross championship blend well with the larger mystery of finding Zero.The excitement and twists, particularly in the second half of the novel, work well to draw readers in and help them ignore the fact that a few frank conversations could solve most if not all of Emika and Hideo’s problems.

This duology starter is filled with inventive world building, top notch characters, and provocative questions about who (if anyone) deserves a redemption arc. Warcross draws readers in with action and gaming, but where it really shines is with the thoughtful meditation on what separates heroes from villains in a world that is anything but black and white. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, For the Win by Cory Doctorow, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde, Partials by Dan Wells

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2017*

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Deadly Pink: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Deadly Pink by Vivian Vande VeldeWhen Grace’s mother pulls her out of class Grace knows something is wrong. What she never would have guessed is that it’s Grace’s smart, talented, generally better sister Emily who is in trouble.

After working at Rassmussem as a game programmer for college credit, Emily has inexplicably decided to go into the game she was building. According to the note she left behind, Emily doesn’t plan to come out. Ever.

With time running out before the immersive reality game equipment does permanent damage to Emily, Rassmussem is running out of options to get Emily out of a game she clearly doesn’t want to leave. They hope Grace might be able to help.

But inside the game is nothing Grace expected. Her sister has taken refuge inside a game designed for little girls complete with frilly dresses and unicorns. Worse Emily wants nothing to do with Grace and she definitely doesn’t want to leave.

Grace always considered herself the average sister compared to Emily. But with her sister in real danger, this average girl will have to think her way out of this problem before it’s too late in Deadly Pink (2012) by Vivian Vande Velde.

Deadly Pink is Vande Velde’s third novel featuring Rassmussem games with the first and second being Heir Apparent and User Unfriendly respectively.

Fourteen-year-old Grace is an authentic narrator with equal parts sarcasm and (especially later in the novel) ingenuity. While the game itself is not the most interesting, or well-developed, setting Vande Velde does an excellent job presenting Grace’s complicated relationship with her older sister.

Unlike Heir Apparent the focus of this book is more on the characters than the game play. With most of the non-playing characters playing minor roles in the plot, most of the story deals with Grace trying to convince Emily to leave the game.

While both sisters are well-rounded characters, the lack of setting and secondary characters for the majority of the novel is a major weakness. The game is never explained to Grace or the reader giving the effect of Grace running blindly through the game with little understanding of where she is supposed to go or how she is going to save Emily. Grace’s constant plodding through the game while never asking advice from anyone makes for a plodding plot that drags.

The story picks up in the last third of Deadly Pink as Grace comes into her own. Finally embracing her strengths andalso using the limitations of the game’s play to her own advantage, Grace proves at last that she is a heroine worth reading about. If the entire book had been like this small part, it would have been a definite winner.

Unfortunately the story falters once again with a rushed ending to explain Emily’s motivations to go into the game as well as a hurried explanation of what happens after the game is over.

If there are more Rassmussem stories to be told, one can only hope they will return to the style of Vande Velde’s earlier novels.

Possible Pairings: Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci, Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Alter Ego by Robbie Cooper, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin

Alter Ego: Avatars and Their Creators (a non-fiction review)

Alter Ego coverAt first glance, Robbie Cooper‘s Alter Ego: Avatar and Their Creators (2007) is fundamentally a coffee table book: large, non-standard size, glossy photos, high quality paper, and a really interesting topic. But it’s also more than that.

With the unprecedented popularity of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) like Second Life and World of Warcraft, avatars–the customized, computerized virtual characters that move around a computer game when you move your mouse or type on the keyboard–are a big deal. They’re not only how a player interacts with a given game interface, they are also how a player presents themselves to that game.

For that reason, avatars also become a part of a player’s life–sometimes simply to enable gameplay but also often in very meaningful ways unrelated to the game per se. The chosen title of this book, Alter Ego, points out that fact very well. These are characters that players alter for various reasons. Some to adopt a persona more accurate than a physical appearance could ever be. Others to create a virtual version of themselves down to the smallest detail. At the same time, avatars also can become an alternative personality.

In this book Cooper has collected photographs of real people and the avatars they have created for themselves. The book also provides vital statistics (who they are, where they live, game played, etc.). Each person interviewed also explains, in their own words, the thought process that went into making their avatar and what it (and online role play gaming in general) means to their lives.

The book and its range of subjects is fascinating. Senior citizens in a nursing home, a disabled young man, teens, drag queens, actors, entrepreneurs, and regular people are all represented in this book. And they all have an avatar.

No one really knows what the implications of increased online socialization will be yet. But in a time where more and more time is spent online, Alter Ego shows that there is a lot more to gaming than mashing a few buttons.

(Also, the cover looks cool here but it’s even cooler in person because it’s holographic!)

Possible Pairings: Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci, Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Freak Show by James St. James, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Alter Ego

Heir Apparent: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande VeldeVivian 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, Warcross by Marie Lu, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly, So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin, Audrey’s Magic Nine by Michelle Wright, illustrated by Courtney Huddleston and Tracy Bailey

Missing Abby: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Missing Abby by Lee WeatherlyAbby is missing long before she disappears at the beginning of Missing Abby (2006) by Lee Weatherly. Narrated by Abby’s former-best-friend, Emma, the plot examines how their friendship deteriorated in the past while looking at the events surrounding Abby’s disappearance in the present.

This novel, Weatherly’s second, uses Abby’s disappearance to tell Emma’s story. The novel is told in chapters, one for each day after Abby is reported missing. As the story moves farther away from that day, the focus shifts from wondering what happened to Abby as readers begin to wonder what happened between the two girls. Because at thirteen, they are still girls–a fact that is not always obvious from the narration that seems to sound more like the voice of a seventeen-year-old.

Through a strange coincidence, Emma is the last person to see Abby before she gets off a local bus and vanishes. When Emma has to report everything she remembers about that day to the police she also starts to remember their old friendship. Anger often flares up through the worry Emma shows for Abby. Weatherly handles these conflicting emotions well, her narration making it clear that Abby is missed even while Emma is still angry with her.

Just why Emma is so angry at Abby is not clear until the last half of the story. Her reasons for ending the friendship are revealed in dribs and drabs that interrupt the regular narrative: “Freak. The word slithered into my mind, breaking the spell.” Through these fragments readers can piece the girls’ back-story together before Emma reveals the finer details.

Weatherly maintains a level of suspense throughout the story as Emma and Abby’s friends try to learn what happened to her. Emma’s cryptic references to “Balden” and “Karen Stipp” also draw readers further into Emma and Abby’s past. At the same time, the plot remains necessarily one-sided as Abby never gets the chance to tell her experiences.

I really like the message of this story. How, interestingly, it is only after Abby goes missing that Emma is able to realize how precious Abby was as a friend and subsequently find herself again. The writing only falters at the end, where Weatherly seems desperate to neatly tie up the loose ends of a story that was never clear-cut or neat.

As readers my have guessed, this book doesn’t end on an entirely up note. But if you can handle a slightly sad read, give it a try. Also, on a totally shallow level, I absolutely love the cover art on the hardcover edition of this book. The illustration is beautiful and is the main reason I became interested enough in this book to pick it up.

Possible Pairings: The Alison Rules by Catherine Clark, Alter Ego by Robbie Cooper, Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci, Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, The Night She Disappeared by April Henry, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde