Here’s one of my promised posts. Unfortunately, it’s not the one about the Buddha. Fortunately, it’s the review of two young adult books I read earlier this week!
Both Heir Apparent, by Vivian Vande Velde, which let me just take a moment to say, is a fantastic name, and Locked Inside by Nancy Werlin are young adult books where the protags are girls who play video games. I might be biased*, but that’s awesome. Each book takes a distinctly different track.
Heir Apparent is set in a near-future world where ultra-realistic virtual reality games are The Thing. It is, in fact, a fantasy novel, as the main character, Giannine, is playing one of these virtual reality games that is set in a fantasy world. The premise is clever of the book is clever. thirty minutes of real time buys you three days of game time. Each time you die, you’re sent back to the beginning of the story. Giannine’s game goes as follows: Giannine, a lowly sheep farmer, is actually the recently dead king’s illegitimate child, and he has named HER as his heir. To win, she must survive three days of politics, intrigue, and muuurder and get to her coronation in one piece. There wouldn’t be a lot of tension there, as the reader knows that it’s just a game for Giannine. I don’t want to give anything away, but don’t fear: Vende ratchets the tension up plenty.
I enjoyed the book quite a lot. Giannine is a funny girl and reading her commentary on the various happenings is a laugh. But she’s got her own issues and preconceptions that she brings into the game, too, and I’m glad Vende didn’t ignore that because it would have made for a much poorer book. Still, as clever as the premise was, and as much as I liked Giannine, I didn’t come out of the book feeling like it was a great one. Giannine, who is only fourteen, makes some stupid choices and then she keeps making them, which can make for frustrating reading. And the plot of the game was a little on the basic side, which was necessary for the plot of the book, but still left me feeling a little unsatisfied. In spite of those two faults (there are others, but those were the ones that stuck out to me), I would recommend Heir Apparent to people looking for a fast, teen/middle grade fantasy fix.
Locked Inside isn’t a fantasy novel at all, which I probably would have realized sooner if I hadn’t read it two seconds after I set down Heir Apparent. Instead of Giannine, we have Marnie, daughter to the famous ex-gospel singer and founder of an almost-religion, Skye. Instead of virtual reality, we have what appears to be an MMORPG called Paliopolis. Instead of adventure and life or death situations, we have an all-too-real kidnapping and life or death situations. Marnie is, like Giannine, a character full of opinions, but she struggles more with her own identity and fitting in with others. Marnie uses Paliopolis as an escape and it’s only through reading the book that we truly understand why. I don’t want to give too much away, because this book is best when read without knowing too much about it.
The strongest points of the book were Marnie’s inner thoughts, her struggle to be someone she wants to be, and her (developing) relationships with other characters in the book**. I’m not describing her well, because I’m trying to avoid actually talking about her. Just rest assured that Marnie is complex and unusual in the best way. By the end of the book, she still isn’t who she wants to be, but she’s closer and, hey, who is who they want to be?
The weakest point was, unfortunately, the strangeness bordering on complete implausibility of some of the situations. There are big implausibles that I don’t want to mention, but there are smaller, non-spoilery ones, too. Mainly, for me, the vagueness of Paliopolis. For something so important to Marnie, it isn’t described very much and, to be quite honest, it doesn’t sound like a real game.
I know I should give some leeway to Werlin, because she probably isn’t a gamer, and she was just trying to write a book about this girl, but I would like to repeat that Paliopolis is a significant part of Marnie’s life. Surely some more research or something could have been done? Heir Apparent falls into this trap, too, but I’m more willing to give Vende a bye since she’s assuming a future technology (and she defines some gameplay mechanics, such as the dying-and-sent-back-to-the-start thing, which Werlin doesn’t really do at all). I mean, I love that both of these books are about girl gamers, because most young girls nowadays do game and it’s always nice to have that represented. But if it rings false to me, I can’t help but think that it might turn off younger girls, who have a lot to potentially gain from these books.
*For I am a girl gamer.
**This is a bit of a tangent, but Marnie’s behavoir reminds me of my favorite part of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (I don’t know if it’s the first one, but it’s from one of them), when Carmen does some Very Stupid Things in rapid succession. She knows they’re stupid, destructive, and self-destructive, but she does them anyway. I totally identified with that and (I think) a lot of people do similar things. There’s some feeling of desperation or a lack of control or something that prompts us to behave in way that aren’t productive (to use my Buddhism teacher’s term for how we should always spend our time) or beneficial to anyone, least of all ourselves. We especially are prone to this behavoir when we’re adolescents. Marnie acts out in the same self-aware way as Carmen. It’s a well-known fact that teenagers act out, but I think that most adults don’t realize that most of these kids know that they’re doing stupid, self-destructive things. Teenagers are smart and adults all too often underestimate them. I really appreciate that Werlin and Brashares don’t fall into that trap.