Authors: Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience for language, violence, sexual content, and general adult situations
Little could Dr. Melisande Stokes have foreseen the consequences when she was initially approached by the dashing Major Tristan Lyons to do some obscure translation work–work that she had to sign nondisclosure agreements before she could even be told about. Certainly, she couldn’t have predicted that it would get her stuck back in 1850’s England! But then, the entire operation is full of surprises, as any government operation dedicated to reviving magic to time travel by way of quantum mechanics is bound to be. Actually, the whole thing sounds absurd, and yet, the U.S. government seems convinced that it’s actually possible . . . and they’re pouring in the funds to support their conviction. And so, armed with a research budget and their own skills and intelligence, Mel and Tristan form the beginnings of the Department of Diachronic Operations.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. captivated me before I even opened the cover. I mean just look at the cover design; doesn’t it just promise all kinds of fun?! And the story inside does not disappoint. To start out, the whole idea of quantum theory and magic being in any way linked is just mind-bogglingly strange . . . yet at the same time brilliant. If you think about their reasoning, it actually makes sense; there’s an element of plausibility that’s brought into the whole thing. And the way the story plays with alternate timelines and the interplay of quantum mechanics and magic is just fascinating–it’s all extremely well thought out, complex, and convincing. Yet while you have this almost hard science flavor being brought in with all that, there’s also this great sense of humor and people throughout. There are a lot of strong personalities at play in this novel, and they are allowed to roam free and do what they will, which creates all sorts of interesting drama and plot in a very natural, believable manner without being overdone. I also loved the way the entire story is told in documents–the majority of it being memoirs Mel is writing while trapped in 1851, combined with interdepartmental memos, diary entries, wiki pages, etc. It’s modern, expressive, and (again) just a very credible way of presenting the story that’s also full of humor and personality. The one thing that I didn’t love about this story is that it’s essentially a military operation, one that gets really big by the latter parts of the story, and as such, our main characters (that I love) get a bit lost in the shuffle for a while. But they pop back to the surface when things fall apart at the end, so it works out. Definitely recommended.
Author: Christopher Keene
Dream State Saga, vol. 3
My rating: 4 of 5
Noah has made the difficult choice to work for Wona–the company he had believed responsible for his girlfriend Sue’s death as well as the deaths of several other individuals–in order to find those truly responsible and hopefully see justice done. But that choice has come with a cost as most of his friends in the Dream State now see him as having betrayed them . . . which he kind of deserves, actually. He’s trying to fight for the greater good and hope they come around eventually. Of course, working for Wona has its perks, too. Cushy living conditions and great pay IRL, position and privilege in-game–it’s not all bad. But things continue to get more complicated as players in the Dream State find themselves attacked by seemingly untraceable random attackers . . . especially when one of these Screamers, as they quickly become known, shows up wearing the face of Noah’s friend Chloe’s brother, one of several beta-testers who had previously disappeared. Now it’s up to Noah to bring together a functional team and figure out what’s going on and who is behind it all.
As with the first two Dream State books, I found Ghost in the Game to be a treat to read. Keene continues to impress with his world building, giving us a sweeping, imaginative view of the Dream State world in its many iterations. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I really think that his way of presenting the world and the way the characters interact with it in-game are not only one of his greatest strengths as an author, but it’s also some of the best I’ve read, period. It manages to be immersive, easily understood, and captivating. I really enjoyed that in this volume we move away somewhat from the revenge theme, getting into more mystery, adventure, and relationship building/repair. There’s definitely some intriguing plot going on, which is fun to read, and it’s nice to get more interpersonal development in this volume as well, especially with where Back in the Game left us. I’m still not sure about Noah’s way of looking at the whole situation, but after three volumes, I’ve basically come to the conclusion that he and I just think really differently about stuff . . . and it’s actually kind of neat to have a character that is developed enough that I can draw that kind of conclusion about him. I also quite enjoyed getting to see more of the characters IRL in this volume; combining both in-game and IRL character interactions seems to add a lot to the character development and really flesh Noah’s group out as individuals. I should mention, we get left with a bit of a cliffie, or at least with lots of room for plot development in future volumes, which I am looking forward to. I would recommend Ghost in the Game, particularly for gamers, cyberpunk fans, and LitRPG fans in particular.
NOTE: I received a free review copy of Back in the Game from the author in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this review.
Author: Christopher Keene
Dream State Saga, vol. 2
My rating: 4 of 5
Noah is gradually recovering from the car crash that killed his girlfriend and left him fighting for his life in the virtual reality world of the Dream State. But he’s got unfinished business with Wona, the creators of the game and the company responsible for orchestrating the crash to begin with. Somewhere in the Dream State is an item encoded with video evidence that could put Wona out of business, make them take responsibility for what they’ve done. To get this item, though, Noah must return to the game where he was previously trapped, reunite with his old team members, and race to find this item before someone else does . . . except, when he gets back to the Dream State, he finds that someone already has.
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Stuck in the Game, and I think that Back in the Game is a solid continuation of the story. The author does some really great stuff with the setting, focusing less on explaining the mechanics of the game (which you should already know from the first book) and more just letting the game setting affect the way things play out in the story. There are aspects of the story that just couldn’t work in any other setting, and there are also some really neat ideas and nuances that are developed here that I liked a lot–the way that leveling, items, and spells affect the battles or the wide variety of locations, for instance. That said, the type of story presented here is actually pretty different from that of the first book; Stuck in the Game is more of a survival story, whereas Back in the Game is much more revenge-focused. It works, and I enjoyed the plot, but I think I personally like the story-type of Stuck in the Game a bit better–but that’s just me. Also, not to give out too many spoilers, but I felt very personally betrayed by one character in the story . . . and I’m intrigued to see how that betrayal will end up playing out in future volumes. I did enjoy getting a variety of character perspectives throughout the book; they were balanced out quite well and provided some interesting insight into the various players. Overall I think Back in the Game would be an enjoyable read for anyone interested in LitRPG stories, light novels, video games, or cyberpunk/fantasy/sci-fi stories in general.
NOTE: I received a free review copy of Back in the Game from the author in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this post.
Author: Stephen King
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Clay Riddell has finally gotten his big break, signing a ridiculously good deal for his comic Dark Wanderer as well as a sequel. But his euphoria doesn’t get a chance to last for long as the world around him seems to go mad in a matter of minutes. People lose all appearance of reason, attacking each other, biting, running cars into buildings and people. In the following days, as Clay manages to make contact with a few normal people, it becomes apparent that this madness is linked to using a cell phone . . . and these days, who doesn’t use one? Distraught and desperate, Clay and his new companions, Tom and Alice, begin making their way across country in an attempt to reach Clay’s estranged wife and son–while doing their best to avoid run-ins with those who have come to be known as “phoners”. Especially as the phoners’ behavior becomes increasingly concerning and odd.
Stephen King is an amazing author, and while Cell is probably not my favorite of his books, it is certainly both an exciting and a thought-provoking read. It actually reminds me a great deal of Patterson’s Zoo, only better in every aspect. The idea of someone hacking the cell phone system is both chilling and just possible enough to get under the reader’s skin, however improbable the reprogramming of millions of people’s brains using such a signal is. I admired that King limited the story, kept it to a select group of individuals, kept the reader from knowing everything that’s going on, and never revealed the actual source of the problem. It made Clay and his companions’ experience seem much more present and real, more emotionally gripping. And this is certainly an emotionally loaded story, full of adrenaline and horror and sorrow and worry, but also of affection and laughter and joy, surprisingly enough. I enjoyed the characters and found that each brought something indispensable to the story. On a much more detailed note, I loved the allusions to Clay’s comic and his attention to signage and fonts (which is carried through by using different fonts in the text at key moments); I just found that this added a nice extra touch of character development. For those interested in a chilling cyberpunk zombie story that’s a bit open-ended, I think Cell is a great choice, one I would certainly recommend.
Author: Christopher Keene
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Noah and his girlfriend Sue find themselves increasingly concerned and frustrated as they seem to be losing their friends to the new VR game Dream Engine. But when the two are involved in a terrible car crash, Dream Engine becomes Noah’s only link to reality and consciousness as the doctors in the real world work to help him heal. Noah finds himself trapped in an astonishingly realistic virtual reality world–complete with monsters that could kill him in-game and send him into a coma in real life.
I very much enjoyed reading Stuck in the Game. It appeals to the gamer in me, but also to my love of sci-fi and fantasy stories. I know the concept of being trapped in a VR game is not exactly original (think Sword Art Online), but I do think that Keene’s use of the idea was both creatively and interestingly executed. Also, the whole idea of using VR in medicine–cyberpunk, original, and thought-provoking from both a scientific and an ethical standpoint! The balance of game mechanics and descriptions against Noah’s very human plight works. I actually really enjoyed both the characters and the plot; both were quite engaging. I do have to note that this book would be . . . not necessarily inaccessible for non-gamers, but more challenging for them to get into perhaps. The writing style flows well and is easy to follow, however; the writing style has almost the feel of a good-quality light novel. I would definitely recommend Stuck in the Game, especially for gamers and those who love science fiction and fantasy adventures.
Note 1: I received a free review copy of Stuck in the Game from Future House Publishing in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this post.
Note 2: You can check out the author’s blog (including more information about this book) at fantasyandanime.wordpress.com.
Author: Bruce Coville
My rating: 4 of 5
The A. I. Gang, vol. 1
Wendy, Ray, Trip, Rachel, and Roger all find themselves dragged across the ocean to a new home on the island of Anza Bora–all because their parents are involved in some sort of super-secret artificial intelligence research project. Determined to make the best of a situation none of them are particularly happy about, the five children become friends and begin exploring what the island has to offer. But soon they discover that things just aren’t right. Bugs, explosions, and other unexplained events catch the gang’s attention–especially when they begin receiving threatening messages on their personal computers that ought to be un-hackable. There’s only one thing for it: they determine to put together their (considerable) intelligence and computer skills to create their own crime-solving A. I. in the interest of solving this mystery.
In terms of serialized middle-grade mysteries, Bruce Coville’s Operation Sherlock has to be pretty high on my list. While it follows the basic patterns you’ve seen in everything from The Mysterious Benedict Society to Nancy Drew and innumerable others, this particular book fails to get mired down in the way that many of this sort of book do. The plot manages to be typical of the style and yet fresh at the same time. The slightly cyberpunk setting adds a lot, being well-developed and yet not overly emphasized. I think the character creation is where Coville’s skills truly shine, though. He manages to craft a group of individuals who truly show developed, distinct characters without ever falling into stereotyped characters. I feel like his development of the gang is subtly done, and I really enjoyed the interactions between the kids. Nice dialogue as well, which helped the progression of the story a lot. I think for anyone who likes the genre, Operation Sherlock is a significantly above-average choice, and it’s sure to be a hit with anyone (like myself) who loves Bruce Coville’s writing in general. I’m looking forward to trying the second volume.