User Unfriendly. By Vivian Vande Velde. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.95.
Heir Apparent. By Vivian Vande Velde. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.95.
Framed. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $6.99.
Even when they do not wear particularly well, Vivian Vande Velde’s novels about role-playing games gone wrong make enjoyable pastimes. The gaming universe has changed dramatically since User Unfriendly was published in 1991 and Heir Apparent in 2002, but new paperback editions of the books are enjoyable nonetheless, now reading as if they mix a certain amount of nostalgia with intricate plotting and some clever twists. User Unfriendly features eighth-grade hacker Arvin Ruzalli and six other teenagers in a fantasy-role-playing game that plugs directly into their brains – no computer interface required. One of the interesting angles here is that Arvin’s mom is in the game, too – not a very imaginable circumstance, perhaps, but one that produces a lot of the game’s twists, turns and humor. The humor helps, since there is darkness here as well: Arvin finds glitches in the game and issues involving his mom that seem to interfere with her ability to play. The book is all about the real and imaginary worlds intersecting in potentially deadly ways – just how deadly is not revealed until the last couple of pages – but it is not about character development or clear motivation, any more than video games themselves are. Readers willing just to accept Arvin and his friends at face value, or at their face value as game characters, will enjoy a roller-coaster ride filled with trolls, werewolves, giant rats and the other typical denizens of gaming circa 1991. In much the same way, readers who do not expect too much from Heir Apparent will have a good time with it. Here the protagonist is female: 14-year-old Giannine Bellisario. She is no hacker, but she is a determined game player – and a good thing, too. The company that makes the game here is the same one responsible for User Unfriendly: the fictitious Rasmussem Enterprises. This time, too, there is confluence and conflict involving the real and gaming worlds, but this time the setup is cleverer: when Giannine shows up to play the game, an anti-gaming group called Citizens to Protect Our Children is protesting the “satanism” of video games – and while Giannine plays, members of the group vandalize Rasmussem’s equipment. The result is that Giannine may die of “brain overload” in the real world if she is not successful at completing her quest in the virtual one. Never mind the fact that this is nonsense – the premise is a good one (and Vande Velde’s dislike of holier-than-thou anti-video-game crusaders is quite clear). Giannine is a gaming novice and repeatedly dies in the game, but of course not for real. In fact, she learns from her mistakes, as gamers are supposed to do, and eventually wins through to become the fantasy world’s new ruler, that being the game’s objective. As in her earlier book, Vande Velde creates some intriguing situations here, from a statue that is prone to chopping off people’s heads to a centipede-eating wizard. Heir Apparent is a better-written book than User Unfriendly, with a more interesting (if somewhat overly complex) story line and a better-developed central character. Giannine’s sarcastic sense of humor is a big plus. Neither of these gaming books is more than escapism, but both are escapism of a highly entertaining sort, even if details of the gaming worlds they portray are a decade or two old and not in line with today’s versions of virtual reality.
Framed, also now available in paperback, is written almost purely for amusement, its supposedly serious elements taking a decided back seat to its funny ones. Originally published in 2010, Gordon Korman’s book is part of a series that also includes Swindle, Zoobreak and (most recently) Showoff. It helps to know the first two books, since they provide the background for this one, and Korman never really explains what happened before Framed to put Griffin Bing, the book’s protagonist, in the jam he is in almost from the first page. Griffin, a 12-year-old known as the Man with a Plan, is here accused of stealing a valuable Super Bowl ring from his school. The evidence against him is his retainer, found in the locked display case from which the ring was taken. Readers, of course, know that Griffin didn’t do it – he lost the retainer a few days before the theft. Nevertheless, he and his mom must appear before a judge, who puts Griffin under house arrest and orders him to attend an alternative-education center named after John F. Kennedy, which means its initials are JFK, which stand (in Griffin’s mind) for “Jail for Kids.” Griffin must therefore rely, as he did not to the same degree in the earlier books (and as the reader is supposed to know), on his friends: Savannah, Ben, Pitch and Melissa. The kids are characterized by what they do rather than as fully formed individuals: Melissa is shy and great with computers, for example, while Ben has narcolepsy and always carries a pet ferret that is trained to nip him if he starts to nod off. Griffin makes a new friend here – Shank – and the ferret is not the only important animal: Luthor, Savannah’s dog, plays a big role, and another animal proves to be the key to the mystery. The juvenile-delinquency theme is present but is handled rather lightly, the emphasis being more on friendship, enthusiasm and working together to help each other out. The last line of the book, “It was having the right friends,” sums up the message neatly. That is scarcely an unusual conclusion in a book for preteens, and Framed is scarcely a highly original novel. But it is pleasant and, in its way, uplifting – easy to read and enjoyable for what it is, as long as readers do not expect too much from it.