Month: July 2015

Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

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Armada

Four years after the release of Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s new release, Armada, has been greatly anticipated. It seems like everywhere you go on the Bookternet, Armada has found its way already. The synopsis promises a video-game loving, 80s filled alien invasion.

I was staring out the classroom window and daydreaming of adventure when I spotted the flying saucer.

I blinked and looked again — but it was still out there, a shiny chrome disc zigzagging around in the sky. My eyes struggled to track the object through a series of increasingly fast, impossibly sharp turns that would have juiced a human being, had there been any aboard. The disc streaked toward the distant horizon… <cut>

I tried to keep my cool. I tried to remain skeptical. I reminded myself that I was a man of science, even if I did usually get a C in it.

Armada is exactly what I had expected it to be: a fun, fast-paced popcorn* read. It features some funny moments, vivid battle scenes, and a whole lot of video game love.

Armada is set up in a strikingly similar vein to Ready Player One. Teen boy who has spent his life without a strong father figure becomes obsessed with video games. Boy spends a lot of time perfecting seemingly useless video game skills. Chaos erupts, and boy ventures out to use his video game skills to save the world. A series of level-ups and a rag tag group of friends he only knew by usernames are the only thing the boy has on his side. Oh, and don’t forget the romantic subplot.

Armada is a slight refinement on Ready Player One. The “bad guy” gets a bit more dimension, there isn’t a ham-fisted attempt at fulfilling the “dystopia” requirement YA has seemed to have lately, and there is a definite dialing back of the 80s references (though they still come out in abundance).

What’s disappointing is that the book could really have been fantastic, but Cline doesn’t take the story to the next level.

The biggest failing in the story is the lack of character development. Our main character, Zack, is 18 and the story is an action-adventure type; I’m not expecting a lot of deep, emotional growth and life-changing revelations. But, had Cline really taken the time to flesh out Zack’s past and current states, had he given the side characters more depth, the story would have really benefited. He had the space to do it, too. There were easily 50 pages worth of people playing video games that could have been cut without injuring the foreshadowing.

In a similar vein, Zack’s love interest, Lex, could have been a great character. Lex is a rebellious programmer who gets caught up in the alien invasion resistance. She’s a valuable asset in that she’s a skilled hacker and generally pretty decisive. Unfortunately, she mostly serves as a magic fix-all for computer issues. There’s no real look at who she is or what she’s even like. We know she’s willing to go to battle, but we don’t actually see Lex for more than five pages. In those five pages, she meets Zack, kisses him, and basically leaves. She may as well have been an AI or nameless IT-worker. She could have been awesome, but Cline skips all of who she is and about 1,000 opportunities for her to advance the plot.

The story itself is about what I had expected. Aliens are coming to destroy Earth. They’re using drones, so they remain a big mystery. When we do find out a bit more of what the aliens are like, it’s in the last 20 pages. Another chapter or two post-crisis would not have gone amiss here.

While Cline does distinctly tone-down the 80s trivia, there is still the unexplained question: why do ALL of these 15-18 year olds know all of this ridiculously obscure 80s trivia? They were born and reached pubescence in the 2010s, is 80s actually a big deal among teens in 2015? I don’t really think so. Granted, I haven’t been a teen for the better part of a decade, so I can’t say for sure. Given that Cline hasn’t been a teen since about the 1980s, I don’t know that he can say any better than I can.

The story, is though, undoubtedly fun. It’s a YA read that isn’t a total turn-off for the adult crowd and is easily a one-sitting read.  I just wish that there’d been more to it.

*Popcorn read: light, tasty, not very fulfilling in the long run, but very pleasant while it lasts

I received a copy of Armada for free in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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I read Ready Player One to prep for Armada. I’d never picked it up before, though it’s been on my kindle for quite some time and I have had it on audio for almost as long. It was about time.

Ready Player One is a fast-paced adventure story with some fun 80s references. It’s like Spy Kids 3D meets an 80s video arcade. In Cline’s world, virtual reality has taken over. While the world outside becomes increasingly destitute, virtual reality plays an increasingly important role in the distribution of services. Think online high school, but times 1,000. The OASIS (the platform that runs the VR) is huge and its influence seems ever expanding. When the OASIS creator dies, he reveals a secret: he has hidden a series of tests within the OASIS. The player to find and solve all three tests first will win the rights to the OASIS and an enormous fortune.

Wade lives in extreme poverty. He goes to school in the OASIS, because schools in his area IRL are underfunded and unsafe. He lives in a kind of sup-ed up trailer park where trailers are stacked on top of one another 20 stories high. After his parents’ death, he went to live with his aunt who either ignores or abuses him. But he’s holding out hope that his love of OASIS and vigilant study of the creator’s 80’s obsessed life will help him to find the easter egg and get the money to leave his life behind.

Ready Player One is a popcorn read. It’s fun, light-weight and the story flies by. The story is filled with fan-service that makes it easily popular with a crowd that can remember arcades and Sega Genesis. However, I wouldn’t go in expecting fantastic characters or too much world-building. The characters have, generally, some pretty basic motivations and backstories. The relationships are fairly straight-forward. Boy has best friend (username: Aech), boy meets girl online (username: Art3mis), etc… The plot itself is similarly straight-forward.

You are in for a treat if you like obviously bad bad guys with little to no nuance. In fairness, I often like this. The big bad in the book is a group called the Sixers (or Suxors) they’re basically representatives of a company that has put its resources to finding the easter egg, taking over the OASIS, and monetizing it. Be prepped for some ham-fisted moralizing about companies, capitalism, and open sourceiness.

The world inside the OASIS is pretty neat with an interesting minecrafty set up. Outside of the OASIS, you don’t really get a lot of explanation for why the world is in its current state. That, for me, is kind of a bummer, but it’s not really the point of the book, and considering that about 80% happens in OASIS, it’s not too much of a distraction.

Overall, Ready Player One is fun. It’s a vacation, on-an-airplane, get ready to be nostalgic adventure.

As a big bonus: Wil Wheaton narrates it. He’s perfect for the role.

Review: The Fold by Peter Clines

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Peter Clines’ The Fold is about a team of scientists who have created a successful teleportation machine. How, you ask? They have discovered a way to fold space. But, the problem is that they won’t tell anyone how. After one of the scientists shows up no longer knowing who his wife is, the scientists’ patrons decide to send in a third party to make sure everything is as safe as they say it is.

For those of you with an interest in audiobooks, you can check out a clip of the audiobook.

Thanks to Audible for the sound byte!

I should start off by saying I have a complicated relationship with dimension/time travel stories. I say this for every story even remotely like this, because it frames my perspective on most of the construction and plot issues. The story writes off the technology almost entirely. That strikes me as a bit lazy, but better to not do it than to muck it up or give something half-assed.

I really wanted to like this story. It wasn’t terribly original, but that’s not such a big deal. The problem with the whole story for me was two-fold: The presentation of the main character and his abilities was poor and the humor was totally lacking.

The main character is a high school teacher with extraordinary mental abilities. His potentially is woefully underutilized until his best friend gets him involved in the Albuquerque Door (the aforementioned teleportation project). There, he’s sent in to check stuff out, make sure everything is on the up and up. Why was he sent in? He’s got a record breaking IQ and remembers literally everything he’s ever seen. Ok. I’ll bite.

The problem here comes in when the character’s abilities are mentioned every page. The story doesn’t build because it is constantly being brought up. We aren’t being led to conclusions because the character’s abilities are just *soooo* remarkable that he tells us what’s happened.

Compounding the problem, is that the humorous parts are super repetitive. He’s compared to Severus Snape not once, not twice, not three times, but so frequently it’s not worth counting. He’s named Leland, but goes by Mike. Why? Everyone started calling him Mycroft Holmes– Sherlock Holmes’ intelligent but underachieving brother.

It just was eye roll worthy.

I received this for free in exchange for an honest review.