A band of teenage outcasts must overcome demons both personal and virtual when they stumble into an augmented-reality game.
Like Tobey's debut (The Faculty Club, 2010), this thriller pulls influences and styles from both other books and other mediums, in this case borrowing liberally from Stephen King, Stranger Things, and what academics dub “social problems novels,” this one echoing Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters (1981). The high schoolers here are Charlie, who lost his mom to cancer; Harvard-bound Indian American prodigy Vanhi; Kenny, a bit of a cipher; Alex, who's under way too much pressure; and Peter, who’s rich, privileged, and high. They’re a losers’ club who retreat to their high school’s tech lab, where they can code, game, and tinker under Charlie’s invented moniker, the Vindicators. Things get weird when they stumble onto an old-school text game run by an omnipotent, omniscient artificial intelligence who thinks it’s God with a big G. It’s an evil bargain, too, and the AI seems to have the power to make its deals happen: If you win, all your dreams come true, and if you lose, you die. Actions the game likes earn players “Goldz," currency they use to buy privileges and powers, while other behaviors earn “Blaxx,” demerits that might get you killed. Over time, the kids are awarded “Aziteks,” glasses that augment reality so they can see what God has in mind for the world. There are other banal things going on—bullies who are complete dicks, as happens, as well as crushes and the novel’s central theme: the complicated relationships between parents and children. There’s a great thriller in here, but you have to carve off the excess to get to it. The mythology of The God Game, originating with a 1990s-era squad something like the Vindicators, gets too complicated, and the rules of this universe are never really clear. By the end it’s all a bit dizzying and not entirely satisfying.
Great characters, a novel concept, and scary set pieces, but it never gels into something memorably terrifying.