Self-aware nonplayer characters, here video game enemies, try to escape the digital world.
Phoenix leads the “next-generation, cutting-edge, biggest, baddest group of kickass NPC AI mother-crushers that ever played game” across premier game company BlackStar’s genres and titles. BlackStar dominates the market through enemy AIs—artificial intelligence—as clever enemies make games challenging and unpredictable. But latest-generation Dakota malfunctions—she doesn’t want to fight and is convinced she “can’t just be a computer program.” The characters slowly develop through fast-paced, genre-hopping video game excursions—while clear action descriptions are accessible to readers who don’t game, those in the know will identify subtle nods. Dakota slowly convinces Phoenix’s team that they’re more than clever programs, forges an alliance with a programmer’s children and leads the team out of the game world. It’s a demotion, though, going from tough virtual personae to weaklings who’ve been living in liquid-filled tanks. Worse, post–energy crisis, society’s collapsed and reorganized into corporate-controlled city-states. While better than the cannibals outside, the city’s wracked with hopeless income inequity, a major theme. Games are the opiate of the masses. Phoenix’s team battles physical hardships while evading BlackStar’s desperate attempts to reclaim them. Light characterization is overcome by the mystery surrounding the origins of the characters, and a delightful final twist hits a perfect note.
Skinner’s debut pairs authentic gaming action with old-school, sophisticated science-fiction concepts to create a twisty, reality-warping ride. (Science fiction. 12 & up)