A video game that inflicts real pain on its players—what could possibly go wrong? In this debut novel, quite a lot.
In 2054, Kali Ling is on Team Defiance, part of a competitive Virtual Gaming League in which players compete in a virtual world. When a player’s avatar takes damage or dies in the game, they experience unimaginable, real physical pain, leading gamers to develop drug habits and mental illnesses. When the team captain overdoses and dies, the league quickly covers it up, appointing Ling captain and bringing in a new player, Rooke. Ling immediately hates him but also wants to have sex with him (even though the last captain died in her bed days before). As their insipid romance blossoms, they fight their way through the tournament and discover what else the league has been covering up. The end result boils down to Ready Player One plus The Hunger Games minus anything that made those books enjoyable. The prose is amateurish, with stupefying turns of phrase such as, “L.A., the West Coast equivalent of New York” and “My heart rifled into my throat.” Ling’s half-Chinese heritage is stated as if it’s a personality trait, then repeated ad nauseam in place of any character development. Descriptions of ongoing drug use read like a tween recounting what the kids who smoke under the bleachers said. Tender moments between Ling and her love interests are purple nonsense (“He tasted like an autumn night”), and descriptions of actual sex—“I drove my fingers through his hair, and his tongue assaulted mine”—are thoroughly anti-erotic. Scenes meant to be hilarious aren’t; for example, Ling nearly screams with laughter upon learning that someone is from “CANADA.” (In all caps, because it’s just that hilarious.) Worse still is a scene in which a character reveals that his girlfriend died because, well, she did so many drugs that she thought she could fly and leaped from a balcony to her death. That urban-legend reference should be a joke, but the only joke here is on the reader.
Game over, man. Game over.