Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Book Review - Otherworld

Upon reading the book summary for Otherworld, I expected this novel to be somewhere in between Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and The Mortality Doctrine series by James Dashner. There were plenty of similarities in the sense that the books involve the characters getting dangerously lost in a Virtual Reality game that’s more than it seems. It’s probably a bit closer related to the Dashner series than Ready Player One but it’s different enough to stay fresh and keep me interested.

Otherworld is a virtual reality game that’s expansive and hyper-realistic. At the opening of the book, current technology includes visors, gloves and VR haptic gear…pretty standard concept. The game is in a very exclusive early release phase with gear and access costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. This high entry point and seemingly limited release did have me a little confused later in the book as our characters encounter a ton of other player characters, but I guess there are plenty of hard core gamers who will shell out high costs for something like this.

The book focuses on the main character of Simon. He’s the high school son of ultra-rich parents who are mostly uninvolved with his life except as it comes to scolding him for misbehaving. Through his childhood and early he made a secret friendship with a girl named Kat. Due to the interference of their parents and trouble that got Simon kicked out of multiple schools, Kat is no longer associating with Simon at all and her stepfather has threatened legal action if he finds Simon around. Naturally this doesn’t stop a headstrong teenage boy and he keeps trying to figure out why Kat is being so standoffish towards him.

After a few days there’s a major accident that leaves numerous students dead and others, including Kat, in a coma. Specialists arrive from the Company that created Otherworld and they invite the comatose Kat to participate in a special beta of a Disk. The disk takes comatose patients into a virtual world where they can have a form of life while waiting for their body to heal in the real world. Simon naturally suspects a conspiracy and worries that Kat is in danger. Developing some new alliances, Simon decides to go into the virtual world to save her.

The book balances its time between the real world and the game world, often having our characters being ripped from one to another in a jarring way. This keeps the characters and the readers off balance and unsure of what will happen next.

The game world as a plot concept is interesting but I wasn’t quite as impressed by the representation of the various game “realms” themselves. Without spoiling too much, the main plot concept is that the software characters are self-aware and feel threatened by the human players. Simon is in the game trying to find Kat and help her escape back to reality. His mission grows over time but most of it involves a long journey from one game realm to another. The individual game realms are both interesting and superficial. There are some elements that I found very interesting and unique and which served as a thoughtful commentary on society in general.

At the same time, the various realms felt flat to me. We were told how much the players were in awe of the grandiose realism of the virtual world. There were some interesting descriptions of clouds and animals and the way the software portrayed the randomness of reality rather than predictable patterns. I think part of my problem was that I felt like many of the game world features felt a little too cliché.

As Simon continues on his quest to find Kat, he uncovers more and more secrets both within the game world and during his time back in the real world. Real life dangers threaten Simon and Kat both in the game and in the real world. Interesting plot twists leave the characters (and readers) unsure exactly where the conspiracy will lead. While I found the quest within the game world a bit stereotypical, I found the conspiracy and the overarching plot to be intriguing and compelling.
Aside from Kat and Simon, the characters weren’t exceptionally deep. There were a couple of character tropes although the authors did try to add in a few surprises here and there to break the mold.

Simon is written as an impulsive, belligerent, headstrong teenager. He admits to himself that he’s got a crush on Kat and that love is what drives his actions. We’re given some fun backstory information about Simon and his family. There’s also a strange amount of focus on his physical appearance, particularly his large nose that he apparently inherited from his grandfather…just one of those quirks to make him feel more real. We get into Simon’s head and see his fears and anxiety. He’s determined to save Kat but he’s in turmoil about how to do it and whether or not he actually can do it. We don’t get much insight into Kat’s character. She mostly seems like the trope of a confident, brave, smart heroine that shouldn’t need rescuing. And yet, here comes Simon to save her. It’s kind of a weird balance but one that we often find in stories like this.

As a parental note, if this was to receive a movie rating, it would get an R-rating. Not for any overly graphic violence (there are some battle sequences) or sex scenes (there are implications that Otherworld has brothels but the most intimacy are a few kisses). The rating would come strictly from language. While the swearing is something quite akin to what you might find in your average High School and the way it was written felt natural, Simon used the F-bomb more than enough times to push the rating to an R. For my part, I’m not a fan of swearing and vulgarity. It wasn’t as ridiculous as some of the swearing from a Samuel L. Jackson or Sean Penn role, but it was overused for my taste.

Overall, I found the storyline interesting particularly because of the twisted way the plot points unraveled and kept the characters and reader off balance and unsure who to trust or where to go. When I started the book, I was unaware that it was part of a series so I was a little perturbed when I reached the last few chapters and rather than finding it winding down to a conclusion I found that more conflict was being created until we finally end with the characters moving on to wait for book two to hopefully drive closer to a resolution. I have no problem with the idea of a series but I am getting a little series-weary and would love more stand-alone books that perhaps then have a sequel set in the same world with the same or related characters. Knowing that I’ll probably have to wait a full year for the next book and also knowing that I’ve already got a number of series that I’m following, it’s unclear whether I’ll grab book two or not. I hate leaving things unfinished and this story is interesting and leaves me wondering how they’ll work things out.

Will I read the next book…I honestly don’t know. This one does give a small bit of closure but not enough to be fully stand-alone. If you can live with that, go ahead and give it a read. Otherwise you might want to wait until the series is complete so you can binge read the whole thing. Generally speaking I found it a fun book with a fun story.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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