December 05, 2013


Game Slaves. By Gard Skinner. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

Seven Wonders No. 1: The Colossus Rises. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $6.99.

Seven Wonders No. 2: Lost in Babylon. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $17.99.

     White-hot pacing and all the subtlety of a kick in the teeth distinguish Gard Skinner’s first book, Game Slaves, whose plot is wholly derivative but whose progress is so breakneck that many readers will not notice or, noticing, will not care. This is a war story for the digital age, focusing on six NPCs (non-player characters) in a video game, characters who form collateral damage when they are blown up and are agents of mayhem when they are not, all of them totally stereotyped (ripped physiques, both male and female) and equipped with plenty of ways to do mayhem. Reno is into laser machete and sniper cannon, York favors knives and a rocket launcher, Mi goes for ranged weapons and explosive ordnance, and Jevo likes fists and teeth. Each of them has tens of millions of confirmed kills. And so do the team leader, Phoenix, whose relatively modest weaponry (shotgun, machine pistol) has brought him more kills than anyone else (96,598,322), and the newbie sniper, Dakota, who favors a combat rifle, has not even reached three million kills yet, and has a disconcerting habit of asking too many questions about what the game is and what the relationship is between the NPCs and the real-world gamers who set them in motion and, as often as not, destroy them so they have to be reformulated, reconstituted, whatever. Of course there ensues, amid the organized and carefully modulated destructiveness, a slew of questions about what is real and what is created within the game, and whether the NPCs can possibly move from one world to the next and, if so, how. Anyone who has seen The Matrix, or even heard of it, will find none of this story arc surprising, but Skinner pushes his novel with such speed and intensity that those looking for a quick adrenaline rush will not care how formulaic the whole thing is and will not be disappointed in the story’s progress. Eventually, there is an inevitable confrontation with the inevitable creator of the whole gaming world – who bears the truly unfortunate name of Max Kode – and the erstwhile NPCs win through to real-world existence by discovering and uncovering secrets and making things just a bit too hot for Kode to, um, decode. Or do they eventually escape? Are they perhaps simply trapped in worlds within worlds within worlds? How can they ever know for sure? Again, this sort of infinite loop (or Mรถbius strip) is scarcely new and scarcely original in the way Skinner handles it, but it has been entertaining and intriguing in other works – in many media, not just books – and remains so here. Game Slaves is no more than a thrill ride, but that will be more than enough for many of the preteens at whom it is aimed.

     Seven Wonders goes for the same audience and has the advantage of a highly experienced author, Peter Lerangis, calling the shots. The series’ plot, however, is even sillier than that of Skinner’s book. Thirteen-year-old Jack McKinley and several friends all have genetic abnormalities that would grant them enormous powers if their bodies could handle the changes – which their bodies cannot, which means they are all going to die soon. Unless, of course, they visit the sites of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and discover the lost Loculi whose magic can save them. The Loculi were stolen and hidden by the last prince of Atlantis, from whom Jack and the others are descended. And they must be returned to Atlantis, which unfortunately no longer exists. But then, neither do six of the seven Wonders, which complicates matters. Got that? The objective is to get it without laughing and without looking at the absurdities closely – or, in fact, at all. Manage that and you can enjoy the first book of the series, The Colossus Rises, now available in paperback, in which Jack, Marco, Aly and Cass are introduced and begin their quest by meeting the prototypical oddball professor, Bhegad, who explains that Jack must somehow sustain himself through the quest not only to save his own life but also to, you know, save the world. This turns out to involve defeating the Colossus, which also involves dealing with a griffin, and – well, there is nothing but fantasy in this adventure, but the story is well-managed by Lerangis, who does a fine job of ratcheting up the tension periodically while letting it subside slightly from time to time in order to get readers ready for the next pulse-pounding event. The pattern holds, not at all surprisingly, in the newly released Lost in Babylon, which centers on the Hanging Gardens (which, like the Colossus of Rhodes, are long gone). At the start of this book, Marco has disappeared, along with the first Loculus, but he rejoins the team (with an apparently reasonable explanation) soon enough, enabling all the protagonists to engage in scintillating dialogue, including such random examples as these: “Those farms outside the city are pretty awesome.” “What do we do now? Wait here under lock and key until Prince Sadist reports to his dad…?” “Are you nuts?” “You found the invisibility Loculus!” “That guy bugged me.” “Get us out before the place blows.” Although not set in a video-game world, Seven Wonders proceeds with all the unsubtlety and cardboard characterization to be expected in such a venue, all handled by Lerangis with sufficient aplomb so that readers gripped by the series’ first installment will be entirely satisfied with the second and looking ahead to the third. Lerangis is particularly good at ending a book with a cliffhanger, and the one he chooses in Lost in Babylon is good enough to frustrate readers who will be unable to find out immediately just what it implies. Seven Wonders may be silly, but its mixture of thrills and mystery will hit the mark again and again for readers who remember not to take any of it the slightest bit seriously.

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