This new series - "Charley Reads" - is not intended to showcase my opinion on every book under the sun (that's what my new Goodreads page is for), but rather to display a few books that inspired a particularly strong reaction from me in some way, shape or form. Be warned, not all of these reactions will be positive. And, yes, I will probably continue to mis-use gratuitous food metaphors throughout. Sorry about that.
In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he's jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade's devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world's digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator's obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade's going to survive, he'll have to win—and confront the real world he's always been so desperate to escape.
Overview:This is a book made with love. No, not just made - carved and moulded and stuffed full of a lifetime's loves and obsessions and nostalgia, like a childhood toy finally getting that visit to the teddy bear doctor that it's been needing for the last twenty years. I loved the references to 80s pop culture ephemera - stuff my geekhood is steeped in and in many ways determined by, despite the fact I was born in the middle of the following decade. The unadulterated, unapologetic nerdiness of the whole thing was a refreshing break from the covert nerdhood of many other geek-ish novels, and strangely comforting in the familiarity of the elements. The story was fun, the writing engaging, and all was very well balanced between seriousness and fluff to allow for some genuine moments of tension despite the apparent removal of real-world threat due to the story's synthetic setting.
I really liked this book. Which is why I'm also rather disappointed with it, too.
The Details:The worldbuilding. Oh my stars, the worldbuilding. Cline has done an amazing job building up a pair of engrossing parallel worlds - the miserably dystopic reality, and the aptly-named virtual OASIS that our narrator Wade "Perzival" Watts spends his time dashing between. Everything, from the schooling system to the big-picture economic and cultural explanations was utterly believable and engrossing. However, there wasn't much by way of detail or everyday minutiae to help flesh that big picture out very much, leaving everything a little less substantial than it could have been.
The characters were stronger, and made up (mostly) my second favourite of the novel's elements. While I occasionally wanted to grab Wade's head and slam it into a brick wall, I did so because he was an absolutley realistic and believable teenage boy doing absolutely realistic and believable teenage boy things and thinking the subsequent teenage boy thoughts. The internet culture he lives and operates in is as accurate as a Chuck Norris punch to the gut; complete with "l33tspeak", flaming, spamming, and dementedly out of proportion aggression. The villain was, despite his fairly standard setup, rather excellently menacing and ridiculous at once, and the posse of Perzival's online pals were distinctive and lots of fun in their own right.
That is ... except Art3mis. Let's talk about her for a second.
The Talking Point:It's all very well building a novel on the fun and nostalgia and tropes and glory of the 80s' nerdier moments - but sometimes there's a reason those elements have since been overwritten. Yes, the typical "team good guy" setup (wonderbread white boy hero, snarky best friend, secondary buddies, and the girl) is enduring and in some ways charming, but if you let that come to define the entirety of one of your central characters' personalities... well, you get Art3mis.
We're told that she's clever and fascinating and wonderful and funny, but because we see the whole novel through Parzival's eyes, we never see that directly. As we see her, she's a fairly flat, bland, competent but overally fairly boring object for Parzival to love, lose, and eventually win, as their trope-inspired storylines demand. Bit of a pity, really, that Cline didn't let her follow up on a rather fascinating sub-plot involving the facelessness and deceptive quality of the internet, which could have granted her words a validity and her character a greater sense of personality. As is, props to not making her a bammin' slammin' sexy supermodel, but when your main character goes on and on and on about her in a purely romantic context anyway, with a heavy layer of "not like other girls" to top it off, that kind of undermines the whole point.