NEW ARCADIA | Kirkus Reviews

A curmudgeon finds himself inside the world’s first fully immersive video game in Martin’s debut SF series starter.

As a deadly virus decimates a future America, John Chambers takes refuge in virtual reality games. They’re so realistic and engaging that they allow him to forget the perpetual quarantine in which he lives. The day after John turns 40, he gets an unexpected offer from video game designer Lucas Dekker to beta-test a new total-immersion game that’s unlike anything that John’s ever seen: “You will feel like you are actually present inside a virtual world,” pitches Lucas. “It is not hyperbole when I say that it will feel like you really are right there.” John just has to agree to participate in the game’s teamwork component, which the misanthropic protagonist does only reluctantly. In the game, he’s reborn as “Blaze,” a 22-year-old, fanny pack–wearing street tough in a retro, arcade-style fighting game. The setting is the city of New Arcadia, an East Coast metropolis in decline, where a gang called the Spankers are pushing a dangerous new narcotic called Drug X. At first, John is having the time of his life, running around the urban environment, picking fights with baddies, and defeating them with his fantastic fighting skills. Then he meets Jessica, another player, who’s even less interested in cooperation than he is. But when his new acquaintance gets into real trouble that spills over into the real world, John will have to learn to be a team player in order to save her—if the world of New Arcadia doesn’t come crashing down around him first.

Martin’s prose, which is mostly in the voice of John, is fluid, sarcastic, and full of cinematic allusions, as when John says to Lucas, “So you Last Starfighter-ed me?…Movie released in 1984? Directed by Nick Castle, the guy who played Michael Myers in the original Halloween?” Indeed, many readers will notice that the novel feels quite a bit like Ernest Cline’s popular 2011 SF novel Ready Player One, which was itself made into a movie—although the references in this new novel tend to be more centered on the 1990s than the ’80s. (There are still plenty of references to the ’80s, as well, though.) John himself is also a familiar character type, but Martin’s disinclination to make him very likable perversely ends up making him easier for readers to root for. Over the course of the story, the author successfully ratchets up the real-world stakes, which intrude upon the game; in fact, the most compelling sections are those that take place in the desert hellscape in which John actually lives and which include timely references to a pandemic. On the other hand, some readers may struggle with how much of the book is given over to descriptions of simulated fistfights, which start to wear thin. Those who fully get onboard with the video game concept, however, will enjoy this offering.

A novel that presents a well-constructed take on a recognizable virtual-reality premise.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2021


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Publisher: Sound Off Productions

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2021

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