Slay by Brittney Morris (9781534445420)
Kiera spends her days at high school as one of the only black kids other than her boyfriend and her sister. She is regularly asked by the white kids about what is discriminatory and asked to speak for her entire race. Her sister and boyfriend are both activists and speak loudly and clearly about what is oppressive. But Kiera has her own opinions and they come out in the video game, SLAY, she designed that is specifically focused on giving black gamers their own safe space online. Hundreds of thousands of people now play SLAY, but no one in her life knows that Kiera plays it at all, much less that it is actually her game. When a boy gets killed over game money though, everyone is looking for the elusive game developer. The game gets labeled anti-white by some people and soon Kiera finds herself in the battle of a lifetime to defend her game and keep it from collapsing.
Writing about video games can be nearly impossible. The problem is capturing the action and abilities on screen while still keeping the game believable and understandable. Morris does this extremely well. She marries a battle card game with an MMORPG, which works particularly well. It’s a game that readers will want to play themselves, which is a tribute to how well Morris describes the game, gameplay and the world she has created.
Morris has also created great human characters in this novel. Kiera is smart and capable, channeling her energy and anger at the casual racism of other games into building one of her own. I love that we get to enter Kiera’s story after the development of the game and once it is already popular. The novel also wrestles very directly with racism, with stereotypes, and with being yourself in a world that excludes you and your voice.
A brilliant video game book that celebrates being black and the many dimensions that brings. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
Warcross by Marie Lu (9780399547966)
Warcross is an international obsession, augmented reality and a video game world combined into something that everyone uses every day. Emika though has troubles in the real world making ends meet, paying her rent. She works as a bounty hunter, finding the criminals that the police don’t have time to trace. Then in Warcross, she uses a hacked account to make quick money there. But when her hack accidentally makes her visible in the middle of the Warcross Championships, her life changes. She gains the attention of the enigmatic Hideo, the man who created Warcross. There is someone else hacking into Warcross and threatening the games, Hideo hires Emika to trace the intruder. To gain access to the games, Emika is given a wild card slot and moved to Tokyo. In the middle of comfort and ease for the first time, Emika finds herself on a team for the first time, falling in love and playing an illegal game alongside the legal one. Now she has to race time to find her prey and stop their plot.
Writing novels about video games is difficult. It’s hard to figure out how to make hacking and video game code concrete enough for readers to be able to follow. Cleverly, Lu uses her augmented reality subject to allow readers to visualize hacking, code and the dark web. The video game subject is strengthened by the mystery and bounty hunting in both the virtual and real worlds. It also plays beautifully against the romance that Emika discovers, heightening the pressure she is under and giving her someone to truly care about.
Emika is a great protagonist. Smart and savvy, she is not one to make mistakes that anyone else would make. Still, she is wonderfully flawed in her lack of trust of others and her isolation. As she makes her mark on both the real and online worlds, her fame grows but never really touches Emika. This is not a book about video game fame or even playing video games. Rather it is about the power of virtual worlds, the temptation of technology and how it changes us as humans.
Powerful and timely, this novel will be enjoyed by gamers of all types. Appropriate for ages 12-16.
ARC provided by Putnam.
In Real Life by Cory Doctorow, illustrated by Jen Wang
After a woman gamer comes to present information on gaming and computer science to her class, Anda starts to play Coarsegold. She starts to spend most of her time away from school playing the online multiplayer game. Online she meets another player who encourages her to start killing gold farmers for real life money. So Anda refocuses her battles online specifically on gold farmers, killing them even though they don’t fight back. But something feels wrong about what she is doing and then Anda gets to know one of the gold farmers who has started to learn English. He is a poor Chinese kid who is just trying to survive and loves playing Coarsegold even though he does it for hours as a gold farmer. Anda soon finds herself questioning the morals of killing gold farmers and what is wrong and right in real life and in the game world.
As a gamer girl myself, I applaud Doctorow for choosing to have a female lead in his book about online gaming. It adds another dimension to a book that wrestles with tough questions about gaming and gold farming. Gold farmers are people, usually from poorer countries, who are paid to play the online game, gather materials, and then sell them for real money, something that is against the rules of the games. So the book gets to the heart of people from wealthy countries using those from poorer countries, it looks at working conditions in gold farming companies, and questions the real ethics of the situation, beyond the superficial ones.
Wang’s illustrations are dynamite. She shows Anda as a girl who is built like a real person. She is rounded, comfortable in her clothes, and wonderfully not on a diet! Wang creates an online character for Anda who is powerful but not busty and half naked. It’s a great choice artistically.
Gaming books that actually get the game worlds right are few and far between. Gamers of any MMO will recognize the economy, the style and the play here while non-gamers will find themselves understanding gaming and game economies too. Appropriate for ages 12-16.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.
Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, illustrations by Thien Pham
As a child, Dennis was forbidden from playing video games. When his father died, he played them all the time. He was even good enough to consider playing on the professional circuit. But that was before THEY showed up. Four cute little angels with plenty of attitude and a lot of bossiness seemed to know exactly what Dennis should be doing with his life, and it certainly was not video games. Instead, they pushed and insisted in his father’s name that he start studying hard and then go to medical school. But will Dennis find happiness there? Or will he return to his love of gaming?
Yang captures the tension between following your own dreams and following those of your parents. The four angels serve as universal parental voices, insisting that the future path is set and that one must fulfill one’s destiny. The writing is infinitely readable, down-to-earth and yet striking. The book wrestles with important themes, using the graphic format to lighten things but still looking deeply at the choices that shape a life.
Pham’s illustrations are filled with simple lines, washes of color, and often have a play of light and dark backgrounds in different frames on a page. But if one looks at the illustrations, they are well rendered, interesting and far more than the simple lines may originally seem.
This book has teen and gamer appeal galore. Before I got to read it myself, my husband and two sons had to read it first. Both the theme of video games and the graphic format made it impossible for them to pass up. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from library copy.
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