Book Review: Young Adult: Warcross by Marie Lu

 

Player, Hunter, Hacker, Pawn
a 3D Warcross logo of raindow letters in a cube

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

Title: Warcross
Author: Marie Lu
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Near-future Science Fiction (Dystopia?)
Publisher: G.P Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 12th, 2017
Format: Hardcover
Length: 368 pages
ISBN-10: 0399547967
ISBN-13: 9780399547966

Series or Standalone: Warcross #1

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Augmented reality, virtual reality, revenge, poverty, hacking, esports, mmos
POV: First person
Tense: Present

Why I Read It: I mean, duh.  Virtual reality gaming tournaments?  Hacking?  Augmented reality?  Diverse cast?  Yeah.

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Review:

Y’all, I’m about to drop some harsh news.  This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2017.  I even shelled out for the hardcover when Nick couldn’t score us an ARC, where normally I wait for the paperback.  And I’m not sure I got my money’s worth.

If you’ve read the other reviews of Warcross, especially by the book blogging community, you’ve seen pretty much only four- and five-star reviews.  There are a few one and two star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.  And they tell the most accurate tale.

 

First, let’s touch on the world-building.  This is a near-future Earth, and the action takes place primary in New York and Tokyo.  There should be some world-building to support our premise: brain-computer interfaces plus Google Glass, and the popularity of Warcross.  But the world-building here is sparse and insubstantial.  And the description of the tech is lackluster.  Especially if you read manga, watch anime, or read adult SF, there’s very little new here, and no neat details to make the tech stick out.  Something that even a smidgin of world-building could have accomplished easily.  Although New York and Tokyo are beautiful and diverse cities, we barely see any of them, and what we do see is very generic and cliche.  We hear about the mass poverty and decline of world culture, but a couple college girls living in a shitty apartment about to be evicted is not a convincing interpretation.  Showing a bit more of Em’s roommate Keira could have done a lot to shore up this world-building claim.

Now let’s talk tech.  Our main character is a skilled gamer and talented hacker.  But do Lu’s descriptions live up to the hype?  Not really.  It didn’t seem like Lu knew very much about hacking, and her portrayal of hacking, VR, and the dark pits of the Internet is very old school Neuromancer.  And a pale imitation at that.  Her descriptions of how the tech works are jumbled and confusing, discounting the whole “your brain fills in the gaps”.  If brains could fill in the gaps in VR/AR tech, we’d be at Warcross levels of it right now, much less decades in the future.  Like, that’s even harder to manage than just coding it yourself.  Lu has a history as an artist in the game industry and a rep for being an avid gamer herself.  But it doesn’t feel like she learned much about coding from those experience.  Her security vulnerabilities, which shift major tonnage for the plot, are not particularly believable, much like the hacking sequences.  if you want me to believe a character is a genius hacker, you can’t gloss over her skills to focus on the thriller aspects of your storyline.

Which brings u to my next gripe.  The book is a bit of a page-turner.  The pacing moves very fast.  And that’s not an asset.  The gaming aspect is unconvincing laid over a technological thriller skeleton, kind of like a poor man’s version of the Bourne plot.  And we get barely any time to rest.  This plot and the book in general would have been well-served by another hundred pages or so of development.  Both for the plot and the characters.  On the plot side, the esports aspect is very unrealistic.  Why in the world would a company sponsor a pro sports team in a make-it-or-break-it single tournament?  The way esports and related offline gaming competitions tend to work is with a season very much like a traditional sports season, where players climb up the rankings, build their team, and fine-tune their coordination.  Not going from taking apart last years teams, throwing in newbies in a draft, and hurling them straight into combat.  Not buying it.

And speaking of character development, we get basically zero.  A bit for Em, some standard billionaire playboy for Hideo Tanaka, tinged with stereotypical Asion-dude reticence to engage.  I hated the whole romance plotline, which was boring, insta-lovey, and followed every YA romance trope known to man or woman or alien.  There’s was no excitement and zero chemistry.  And a boss-employee relationship with the man having age, power, and money on his side?  Gross.  I wanted to see “Brought another boy home with you tonight?” Em as hinted at by her roommate in the opening scenes.  Perhaps a fling or romance with a Warcross teammate or opponent.  Maybe she met a cool hacker dude in her claimed deep exploration of the Dark Net.  Look, I loved the childhood crush element present at the beginning.  But the development came nowhere near to my expectations from the dozens of solid YA romance plotlines available these days.

And what did we learn about her team?  A bit of interesting backstory for Roshan, some tidbits of Asher, and zero development from when they met her to when they put everything on the line for a goal she wouldn’t even tell them about for most of the book.  Nuh-uh.  You gotta do better than that.

Now, the last major issue I had was the description.  The world-building was shallow and the character interactions marginal, but what really killed it was the dearth of actual gaming scenes and the bad play-by-play description.  Much like Hideo’s NeuroLink, Lu gave us the barest of suggestions and left most of the work to our brains.  Normally fine in a book, but definitely not when we’re trying to visualize a very poorly-described and unfamiliar video game with supposedly fantastic settings and terrain.

Which is sad, because the game itself had some of the parts I most enjoyed.  Totally dug the random power-ups on the map, which created strategic dilemmas for the players.  Leave yourself open to send someone after permanent flight or go all in on charging your opponent?  Tough decision that makes sense even without vast knowledge of video game mechanics.  I wasn’t so much in love with the whole keeping power-ups between matches and cash money purchases of same.  Definitely overbalances the chances of winning in favor of the wealthy and takes a lot of the skill out of the game.  And you can enter them into official tournaments?  No way.  I could see if they were restricted to ones you got in the actual tournament.  But from regular matches you could grind for special abilities?  Hell no.  I also loved the idea of Emika’s Architect class in between the more traditional Fighters and Thieves.  But we weren’t really given a good idea of the role of any of the classes, what their abilities were, or what Captain Asher’s class was.  It’s difficult to build tension describing a game when you don’t know the rules.  Everyone knows the rules of baseball, which lets the author ratchet up the tension, even when using cliche set-ups like bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, three runs down.  When you invent a game, or use a little-known game as a story element, one of the toughest tasks as a writer is to teach the reader enough about the game so that the action creates tension for them.  The second toughest task is inventing a good game.  It’s unclear if Lu accomplished this because we just don’t know that much about how Warcross works.  J.K. Rowling’s Quidditch is the archetypal examples of an invented game being used as a plot point in fiction.  Lu comes nowhere close to that level of success.

Thus, the two twists at the end are simultaneously predictable and come out of left field, leaving you with a nasty cliffhang-nail.  And all the final pieces seemed to just fall into her hands like magic.

If you take anything away from this review, let it be this:  The idea was great, but the author didn’t give the story, the world, or the characters enough time to fully develop into the fantastic book this could have been.  And you have no idea how much I wanted that to happen.

 

Conclusion: 59 /100 (I was had!!!)
Premise: 9 /10 (So much potential)
Plot: 5 /10 (Serviceable but unoriginal thriller plot)
Setting: 5 /10 (Under-utilized)
Main Character: 5 /10 (Show, don’t tell)
World-building: 4 /10 (Was there any?!)
Romance 3 /10 (No shocks, no butterflies)
Supporting Characters: 6 /10 (Cool, but underdeveloped)
Writing: 5 /10 (Description needs work)
Themes: 8 /10 (So much potential!!!!)
Resolution: 4 /10 (Cliffhanger!)

Buy Or Borrow:  Borrow unless you are already a Marie Lu fan.

Similar Books:

Arena by Holly Jennings
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
Chicago Review of Books
The Book Smugglers
Broadway World
The Young Folks
Publishers Weekly Children’s Book Review
School Library Journal
A Page with a View

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook

Audiobooks:

Kobo App
Audible

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Book Review: Young Adult Fantasy: Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

two crossed daggers on a blue background
two crossed daggers

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class—and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.

But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.

Title: Mask of Shadows
Author: Linsey Miller
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: August 29th, 2107
Format: Netgalley eARC
Length: 384 pages
ISBN-10: N/A
ISBN-13: N/A

Series or Standalone: Untitled Duology?

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Revenge, intrigue
POV: First person
Tense: Past

Why I Read It: Saw it on a Goodreads list of 2017 books, liked the description.

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Review:

There was a lot to like about this book, based on the blurb.  Non-cishet, non-binary main character?  Sweet.  Crazy assassin battles?  Check.  Tale of revenge against heartless political monsters?  Got it.

Now look at that blurb again.  “But gender fluid Sal…”  Neither preceded nor followed by any possible related information.  And that’s exactly how the gender-fluidity was played in the book.  Had basically zero effect on the story or how the character was treated.  There were a couple cliche scenes noting that Sal was gender-fluid, and some prejudice.  But it was marginal and flattened early.  Despite the sparse world-building and Sal’s own comments suggesting that their gender role or lack thereof was not common.  There’s a sop made to the idea that perhaps Sal’s old country was a bit more gender-balanced because of their naming conventions.  But on the whole there’s only gender politics when it could score the author cheap points with the reader, and it is not well-done.  If you click on the Perpetual Pages review, there’s something of an own voices criticism of the gender rep in the book, which was mirrored by my own primarily cis-het opinion, and which also squares with my experience of the way gender-fluidity is treated in our world.

And the presentation of gender fluidity in the book was very odd.  “I dress how I feel” but it only really works if we bring in all our context for gender-presentation from our world.  There was no real look or even hint of if and how gender presentation in Sal’s world compares with ours.

So already we’ve lost one of the main selling points for the book, which appears to be just that: a selling point and not a particularly good-faith attempt to create representation in the YA MC community.  I’m not saying the author didn’t have good intentions.  But the outcome was less than stellar.

Sal’s character in general suffers from skin-deep syndrome.  Though there are references to her minority heritage, they are almost entirely related to the politics between the nations’ nobility.  And the regular citizens never comment at all on issues of race or class or ethnicity.  It could be argued this is a good thing.  But in the book, it just seemed like lack of characterization and world-building.  We hear a lot about political conflict, but it’s all rare air plots between royals.  The citizen on the ground never really gets a view of it, and if weren’t for Sal’s convenient placement at the side of the great powers, you might never have noticed.  The world-building manages to be both info-dumpy and distressingly minimalist.  We don’t learn a lot about the history or culture of Sal’s world, but when it comes up, it drops like the dreaded wall of text in an internet forum argument.  We get only the highest-level hints of the world.  And it’s boring.

Which leads us to the plot.  Which is nothing you haven’t seen before and exactly what it says on the tin.  It’s very predictable, and the universe seems to be conspiring to makes Sal’s life as easy as possible.  There are lots of, “I know it was you, but I can’t prove it in court” moments, and a lot of the tension was from convenient misunderstandings.  We get a huge training montage, but it manages to be simultaneously tedious and shallow.  Also, everyone is waaaaaaaay too okay with this whole, murder each other to death and then we give the last one standing a high-paid government job shtick.  There were so many ways to keep the same level of tension while not making every single character except the Designated Love Interest both unlikable and reprehensible.  And, just imagine Gandolf or Ben Kenobi overseeing this murder-fest, and that’s how the Left Hand characters are played.  Half-mentor, half executioner.  You could certainly be a government assassin and a nice person or even admirable person.  But nobody in this book is, except Sal by authorial fiat.

And speaking of the designated love interest!  The idea seems to be that she is bisexual or pansexual, although she mostly just comes across as Sal-sexual.  She’s way too perfect.  Their meet-cute is far too coincidental.  And her role i the climax is honestly one of the most teeth-grinding tension through stupidity moves I’ve ever seen.  Why can no fantasy protag ever do the obvious safe thing?  Because guess what!  Doing the dumb thing has never, and will never, save the stain on your soul.  Make the damn tough choice and live with it.  You got here through the deaths of dozens of people.  But this last deal is just conveniently too emotionally tough for you?  No.  Despite all the ways this book could have taken to save itself, the climax put fifty-two nails in the coffin on it being either believable or enjoyable.  Literally the only reason I can think of to be curious about the sequel is that this book cliff-hangers you soooooo hard.  And not even a “we’ve solved the immediate problem, and can take a break” cliffhanger.  It’s a fuck-you-too-bad-its-forever-til-the-next-book cliffhanger ending that provides zero resolution.  Bad author!  Bad!

(I do disagree with many, many reviews about the other candidates being to concealed by their masks and numbers.  I found them all identifiable, and even if they had names, the ones who were obviously just bit parts to show candidates dying were never going to be more than their role as redshirts, anyway.)

So yeah, was not a fan of this book.  Any book decent enough to get through and agent and an editorial acquisitions board basically ends up with a 50/100 by default.  If that tells you anything about what it means that I could only scrounge up five further points for this book.  It disappointed me on every single one of the promises in the blurb.

And it’s got a GR rating to support my feelings on this.  But enough people gave it good ratings to stay about 2 stars, so there’s an off chance that some readers may really enjoy it.  I wish them well.

Conclusion: 55 /100 (Readable but boring and predictable)
Premise: 6 /10 (Standard fare)
Plot: 5 /10 (Lots of idiot ball)
Setting: 5 /10 (Very under-developed)
Main Character: 6 /10 (Nice idea, bad execution)
World-building 5 /10 (Lots of info-dumps, no depth)
Genderfluid Rep 5/10 (Tolerable)
Supporting Characters: 6 /10 (Cliche but competent)
Writing: 7 /10 (Decent prose)
Themes: 6 /10 (Interesting, but poorly-handled)
Resolution: 4 /10 (Gross/lame)

Buy Or Borrow: Borrow unless you really love assassin books in YA

Similar Books:
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
PerpetualPages
The Illustrated Page
GeeklyInc
The YA Kitten
YA Books Central
Kissin Blue Karen
A Backwards Story

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound

E-Books:
iBooks
Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kobo
Google Play
nook