Spoilers in review: Some minor ones, but nothing major
I went into this book with fairly high expectations due to people raving about and recommending it.
Personally, I don’t think it lives up to its reputation.
A lot of this story rides on its 80s references. Which is great for people who were alive in/like things from that decade. But so much of the plot focuses on them that it feels like this book only exists as a vessel for those references.
When the protagonist, Wade, is introduced, he begins spouting his opinions about things that are irrelevant. The topic of religion literally did not come up again, so why do I need to know that Wade is the biggest atheist that there ever was? I can only assume that this was Cline speaking through his character, which is poor writing.
There is an astonishing lack of female characters. Not counting Wade’s family or neighbours (as they play very little part in the novel aside from being hated and/or dying to provide angst) there are two. One is a manic pixie dream girl, and you don’t know that the other one is even female until near to the end. I don’t think a retroactive Bechdel pass really counts, sorry. Also, this reveal is followed by Wade going on a long rant about how he feels fine with her and her sexuality, which isn’t prompted by anyone and causes the building tension to freeze for a page or so, breaking the flow. Another clear case of Cline sacrificing his actual story in order to speak at length through his character.
At the beginning of the novel, Wade is extremely low level within the game. By the end his character is very powerful, but we don’t get to see much of his journey from A to B. We’re just told that he grinded for xp during a period of time that gets skipped. I recognise that it’s occasionally more appropriate to tell the reader something, rather than show them, but this was not one of those times. Also, introducing something that could limit a character’s abilities (such as his level), only to remove that limitation as soon as it would be inconvenient to keep, shows reluctance and inexperience on Cline’s part.
Another thing I had an issue with is kinda nitpicky. Yes, seppuku is a form of suicide, but not all suicide is seppuku. When a Japanese character used these terms interchangeably (in reference to somebody ‘falling’ out of a window so seppuku shouldn’t have even entered the discussion) it completely broke my suspension of disbelief and I had to put the book down for a bit.
The plot was also very predictable. I figured out the first ‘reveal’ the moment that we were told the name of the school planet ‘ludus’ and there were no actual ‘twists’. The romance was also completely unnecessary and only served to pause the plot halfway through so we could read some chatlogs.
BUT this book wasn’t all bad. On the occasions that Cline actually describes something, be it scenery or an action sequence, it’s done in such a level of detail that (for example) I can still picture Wade’s apartment clearly, despite it being a few months since I read this book. The climax, or ‘boss fight’ if you prefer, was also entertaining to read.
Overall, this book was disappointing. If you want to read about loads of 80s stuff, then you may enjoy this book. If you want something with a strong plot and diverse cast, without constant author tracts interrupting the story, you should read something else.
Review originally written in 2016