This book illustrated the difference between reading as a reader and reading as an author. The crux of the problem: my inner geek fell in love with this book, while the objective side of my mind had a hard time overlooking the flaws. This is an attempt to tackle critique from both viewpoints. Keep that in mind if this review is a bit fractured.
My two sides didn’t always war; they agreed on the characters, or rather, the lack thereof. I had difficulty forming a clear view of the characters early on. It took me some time to figure it out, dazzled as I was by the nostalgia rushing through my system: they are stereotypes. The reclusive loner. The so-punk-it-hurts snarky girl who helps the protagonist “level up” at relationships by accepting her despite her one small flaw. The jock. The honorable Japanese character. Cline misses a big chance to make up for this by turning his villains into generic “Bob Evils” of “Evilcorp” stand-in company IOI. We learn that the antagonist once designed video games, but see no hint of how he went from a benign game designer to a soulless murderer. Lost opportunity there.
Unfortunately, pacing presents a problem. Geek mind was pleased with a perceived brisk pace, and wanted to tear right through it. It’s tough to give a book bad marks for pacing when that occurs, except Cline stops the show almost every time a pop culture reference comes along, offering a detailed explanation. This might have been meant to help the younger readers, but it murders the pace.
Then we have the plot: it spoke right to my geeky soul. From the book title itself (a reference to the arcade games of my youth) to the numerous 80s film and music references, the author knows his subject matter well and wears it like a badge of honor. He does an okay job of weaving it into the narrative, barring the examples above. I’m also a sucker for a well-done quest plot. This book delivers on the quest plot, big-time. The romance is bland. I never cared for the cardboard cutout that was Art3mis, so it just never connected. The EvilCorp subplot, unfortunately, hit ludicrous levels even for my geek brain, and would have cost it a star even from that point of view.
Writer Brain agrees on the quest plot, but the 80s references? Pandering. Pure and simple. They’re not even well done, with some just being pure name drops, a wink and a nudge intended to make me like the book – it’s an easy emotional note to play, using the reader’s nostalgic emotions as a crutch for the characters’ emotions, which are difficult to access. Then there are the ludicrous plot contrivances, especially Parzival’s “grand plan”. No spoilers here, but you’ll know it when you see it and it may drive you mad. Cline clearly painted himself into a corner and found a very far-fetched way out of it using magic tools never-before-mentioned. This happens in other places in the book, like a teenager becoming interested in and thoroughly studying the culture from six decades previous, but this is particularly egregious.
So, we have the cons: relying too heavily on nostalgia, ridiculous plot contrivances, flat characters, and uneven pace. Then come the pros: a story that keeps you reading, a well-done quest plot, and – from my geeky perspective – feeding of the nostalgic urge. Thus, I recommend this book with several caveats. One, you absolutely must have a connection to the 80s. This must come across as a very hollow book without that connection. Two, if you have that connection, it should be a connection of the geekier stripe. Three, be prepared to turn your brain off and enjoy as it you would an action film. If you can do all of that, you might have a blast with it as I did, even while objectively knowing it’s a bit iffy.