“You” by Austin Grossman (2013)

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“So what’s your ultimate game?”

Video games are a good way to spend some down time in between books, I find. I’m not an avid gamer by any means, but I play occasionally, usually something like the Portal series, or The Sims, which is an excellent game to binge on now and then. I’ve also been playing quite a lot of Civilization IV lately. I like a big, sprawling world where you don’t necessarily have to follow a prescribed path. Some people like simply shooting everything in sight. Games are big business, and in Grossman’s novel, You, we see just how much.

Russell has dropped out of his life path of becoming a lawyer and has applied for work at Black Arts, a video game company run by his old high school friends. With limited knowledge of how it all works, and relying on their loyalty to give him the job, he finds himself soon embroiled in creating the newest game in Black Arts portfolio, a fantasy epic where “anything is possible”.

However, it soon finds that there’s a bug in the system – one that seems to crop up now and then in all of Black Arts’ games, from their fantasy stories to the science fiction games. There’s a sword, the Mournblade, that is programmed to drive the user’s character into a killing frenzy until they themselves are killed too. Unsure as to where the code for this game-destroying sword is, Russell must go through the last twenty years of games, as well as recalling the real events surrounding the birth of the franchise. The deeper he gets, the more he realises that this glitch may have ramifications for far more than just the next installment of the game.

I think I’d misjudged what this book was going to be about, and had in my head something along the lines of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Much of it is Russell playing through the various games that Black Arts have created. They all have the same heroes, just in different guises, regardless of genre, and each new one allows you to import the data from the previous one, meaning the same character can be played through for years. The fantasy games are basically Skyrim, but perhaps even more detailed, but most video game genres are present here, with the series spreading across the Commodore 64, through first person shooters, empire-builders, puzzle games and sandbox. In actuality, the games generally sound like they’d be quite fun to play.

On the other hand, the novel is mostly set in the second half of the 1990s, and we all know that computer graphics actually looked like then, so it’s quite sweet to have them getting excited over the quality, when not even Tomb Raider has arrived yet. As the story progresses, though, it becomes hugely entangled in itself, jumping around in time and in and out of the games too. Sometimes the real world is being narrated, other times it’s the in-game events. To confuse things further, Russell begins hallucinating the characters in his real life as they come to him in his dreams. Trying to keep up can be a bit of a mission.

I didn’t much feel there was a particularly good pay off either. By the time we got to the conclusion, I’d rather run out of interest, so the big reveal was lost on me. The mystery isn’t adequately solved, and with the character responsible for the glitch having been dead since the start of the novel, there’s no real explanation of what he was doing. I’ve read Grossman before, and you can’t argue the fact that he’s an interesting and unique writer, but there’s something just a tiny bit lacking from his stories. I think he overreaches himself, personally.

As for my ideal game? It combines aspects of Pokemon, The Sims, Theme Hospital, Portal and Civilization, but what you actually have to do in it is beyond me. I suppose one day I’ll find something…

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Armada” by Ernest Cline (2015)

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armada“I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer.”

Like many people on the planet, my last couple of weeks have mostly been taken up with Pokemon Go. Suddenly we’re all out and about at all times hunting down an elusive Pikachu or prized Scyther. Video games, be they on our phones, computers or any number of consoles, are a fun distraction and most of us have played a game at some point, even if just Candy Crush. In Ernest Cline’s second novel, Armada, he does what he did in his first – takes our love of these games and turns it up to eleven.

Zack Lightman is staring out of the window during high school when he sees a spaceship fly past. As if this wasn’t strange enough, he recognises it as one of the enemy spaceships from his favourite video game, Armada. No one else in the class seems to have noticed, and concerned he’s about to do something insane, he leaves the school and goes home. He seeks peace among the possessions of his father, who died when Zack was just a baby. His father was just as much of a video game nerd as Zack is, but this strange sighting today has reminded him of one of the notebooks in his father’s boxes that he’s tried to forget about.

Xavier Lightman, it turns out, was convinced that there was more to these films and games about alien invasions than met the eye. Were they preparing humanity for something that was coming? That night, Zack joins the world in the latest Armada mission and the following day it seems that his dad may have been onto something after all. Aliens are coming, but thanks to video games, humanity has been preparing for a very long time.

Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One, takes place almost entirely inside an AU that has dominated the globe in the near future. Here, we’re only a couple of years ahead of real time, but again, video games have taken control. The conceit of having video games actually be training simulators for a future interplanetary war is a really fun one, and the book makes use of a huge number of aspects of conspiracy theory to fuel the plot. Such things as the missing Nixon tapes, the arcade game of legend Polybius, and the Star Trek reboot and Star Wars sequels are all shown to be part of this conspiracy. Plus, we also get some amazing cameos from some of the most famous scientists alive today.

Cline is also not one to hide the fact that his knowledge of video games, seventies music, and science fiction pop culture is beyond that of anyone else. The book is peppered with film titles, song lyrics, famous quotations, TV series, and ancient arcade games with more references than I could ever hope to get. The book is playing with tropes, however, and there’s a certain amount of a tongue-in-cheek feeling about much of it. It’s a slightly ridiculous premise, but it’s such a fun one that you can’t help but go along with it.

It takes quite a while to get going, but once the second act hits, it goes for it full force. Aside from the epilogue, the whole story takes place over two days, and the pace is fast enough that you believe it (even if it’s only later you realise that no one has been to the toilet for several hours). Irritatingly, I felt the pay-off at the end lacked something and the book ends a little abruptly, but all in all it’s an exciting, thrilling and incredibly nerdy tour de force that anyone who has ever looked out a window and wished for adventure should read.

That’s all of us.

“Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins (2009)

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Catching-fire“I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air.”

Writing about sequels and trilogies is hard because anything you say will undoubtedly be laced with spoilers. It’s like if you read the blurbs on the backs of progressive books in a series, you can work out much of what is going to happens. Blurbs, it seems, automatically fix cliffhangers.

But I give my usual warning anyway that if you haven’t read The Hunger Games, spoilers to that book start immediately below, so you can catch up with my review of that here, or just thunder on through.

So Katniss has survived the Hunger Games and is now back home, her and her people showered with gifts, this being the prize for winning the Games, but she’s not happy. As far as the world is concerned, she’s meant to be wildly in love with fellow combatant Peeta. However, she’s now sure that she loves her best friend Gale, only they barely get any time to spend together anymore. On top of that, there’s the never-ending nightmares about her time in the arena.

Out of the blue, Katniss receives a visit from President Snow, the leader of Panem, who is silently furious. Katniss’s tiny act of rebellion against the Capitol last year (to have both her and Peeta crowned winners of the Games) has led to murmurings of uprisings in various districts around the country. Should anything come of them, Snow suggests, it will be Katniss and those she loves that suffer the greatest punishments.

With the threat lingering over her head, Katniss and Peeta begin the Victory Tour of Panem and as other districts become more restless, and Katniss’ own District 12 suddenly becomes a lot more militant, she begins to worry exactly to what extent Snow’s rage will stretch. And then it becomes clear. He’s going to get rid of her in the smartest way possible – he’s sending her back into the Games…

OK, so I still don’t like Katniss, which is a shame, because I like most of the supporting cast. Peeta, Haymitch, Effie and Cinna, the latter of whom gets precious little page time in this one, are all great, and I’m even fond of the Games participants, all of whom are previous champions. Johanna is clearly a bit mental and I think she’s great. The two nerds from the electronics district are endearing, and Finnick, a born fisherman, is very interesting, as is the eighty-year-old Mags.

In terms of plot, the pacing is all over the place. The book takes forever to get going, with large sections given over to Katniss worrying. She seems to not be a particularly active protagonist, merely instead letting things happen to her, although she generally handles herself very well in whatever situation. Too well, sometimes. For example, it’s mentioned early on about a secret lake that she used to swim in, and then the arena later on is mostly water, giving her an advantage she shouldn’t have had. The stuff during the Games is the best bit, and then the final chapter or two races through so much exposition, you can’t help but feel that Collins was coming up against her deadline and her publisher had said, “By the way, we want a third one too, so can you throw in a couple of plot hooks there?”

The writing, actually, isn’t bad. Collins is a good writer, but that’s not always the same as being a good storyteller. The best bits about these books are the times set inside the Hunger Games arena, and everything else is just fluff. That’s where the good story comes in, but it takes so long to get there this time, and a lot of the training set up feels so familiar from the last book that it’s not especially interesting.

So it’s OK, but it’s not as good as the first one, and everyone I’ve spoken to says that the third book is terrible (although, inexplicably, also claim that the film versions are the best) but I think I’m going to have to read it just for the sake of completion, although I think I can see exactly where it’s going. Collins will have to pull of a spectacular twist, here.

This is the ultimate difficult second novel. I will be interested to see if it can be saved, although my hopes are not high.

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (2008)

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Let the Games begin...

Let the Games begin…

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”

For years I’ve been saying I’ll get around to this series. It’s not that I’ve not wanted to read it, I’ve just never been so desperate to get my hands on it. Most people I know have already read it and have their opinions, and perhaps I’ve been shaped by some of these. The first in the trilogy is already seven years old, and with the films having been released, many plot points had already been revealed to me, although not necessarily with the right context.

Nonetheless, I have finally read the first book. As usual, I’ll start with a summary of the plot (for those of you who are even later to the party than me) and then I’ll get on with the gritty analysis.

So, The Hunger Games takes place in an undisclosed year of the future in a country called Panem that was once the USA. After a war, the country was divided into thirteen districts and the capital city, The Capitol, each district having a responsibility for a certain product or aspect of the country, be it fishing, mining, agriculture, power, etc. Every year, two teenagers are chosen at random from each District and forced into an arena together where there are no rules and the last one left alive is rewarded with great prizes of food and comfort for the starving population of their District.

This year, Katniss Everdeen, a keen archer and natural hunter, and Peeta Mellark, the son of a baker, are the tributes for District 12. Katniss wasn’t selected, it was her younger sister Prim, but unable to see Prim go though with the trial, she volunteers to take her place. Her world is thrown into turmoil as she and Peeta are taken to the Capitol, dolled up to look beautiful and make the public love them, before being thrown into an arena from which only one victor will emerge, the other twenty-three contestants having died. And everyone in the country will be watching.

OK, so, I’ll get my complaints out of the way first. Naturally, through the fact that the novel is narrated in the first person, we know from the outset that Katniss will survive. (That’s not a spoiler, right?) The tension is also diminished by the fact that the series is over and we know that it’s a trilogy. By rights, Katniss has to survive. I’ve also come to note that people really play up the love triangle aspect of the book and say that the film took it to extremes, but if you ask me it’s not exactly an undercurrent here. I’m aware that the Katniss and Peeta relationship is being played up (by Katniss at least) for the cameras, but it’s definitely not a minor plot point that she has feelings for her friend back home, Gale, too.

An expert archer at 16, because of course.

An expert archer at 16, because of course.

Also, I have to note that Katniss is one of those protagonists that I simply don’t like very much. She joins the ranks with Lyra (His Dark Materials), Alice (of Wonderland fame), and, yes, Harry Potter (let’s face it, no one’s favourite Harry Potter character is Harry) of protagonists that I find irritating. I know she’s playing up to the cameras for a lot of it, but, come on, how right is she about what’s going on out there? She has plot armour on up to her eyeballs, and I find her something of an insufferable know-it-all. I know you’re supposed to take all this with a pinch of salt, and I ran with it for as long as I could, but disbelief can only be stretched so far.

HOWEVER.

As young adult books go, this isn’t badly written. It’s smart and pacey, has a lot of very interesting ideas and builds a world that is horribly foreign and yet, at the same time, worryingly realistic. While I’m fundamentally bored by Katniss (Peeta exhibits traits that might make him a little more interesting), I do want to know so much more about this world. Who’s idea were the Hunger Games? How did the country get divided up? What’s going on in the rest of the world? Have they ever tried to stop Panem?

The supporting characters are more interesting, too. Effie Trinket is obviously a cog in the evil machine of the Capitol, but one that occasionally reveals glimpses of her true personality behind the mask, possibly suggesting that she doesn’t necessarily like everything that goes on. Haymitch is great, and while his alcoholism feels slightly tacked on at first, it quickly becomes obvious as to why he’s like that. Caesar Flickerman is also an interesting one, as I really can’t tell if he’s meant to actually be on the tributes side, or if he’s as bad as the rest of them and it’s all a front. My favourite of the supporting cast, though, is Cinna, who seems to be the only genuinely good person there. The other tributes feel pretty one-dimensional. Obviously many are killed quickly to bring down the number of characters we have to contend with, but even those that survive longer don’t excite me that much. That’s the nature of the story, I suppose; we have to know and see what Katniss knows and sees.

I’ll carry on with the series, sure, but not without trepidation. Most of what I knew about the series has happened here (although obviously my knowledge had enormous gaps; I had no clue that the Games were literally about hunger and the supply of food) so I’m going into murkier waters, although I can make a good guess at some of what’s coming. If you haven’t read the books yet, and aren’t put off by any spoilers I’ve revealed above (although I don’t think I’ve done too badly), then be prepared for the first few chapters to be a bit of a slog, but stick with it. The payout is very good.