Gamer Army by Trent Reedy

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Gamer Army by Trent Reedy
Scholastic, 2018.

Reedy (The Last Full Measure series) mixes up a rather bland middle grade scifi stew of Ready Player One and Enders Game when five 12-year old gamers are invited to take part in a virtual reality Laser Viper tournament.

In an unspecified future, much of life, including gaming, is conducted in Virtual City, created by William J. Culum, the CEO of Atomic Frontiers. So when white Rogan, Shay, and Brett, along with brown-skinned Jackie, and Asian American Takehashi arrive at the Atomic Frontiers specially constructed game arena they are initially beguiled by William J. Culum. But as the gamers play competitive missions and contestants are eliminated, the remaining ones start to have some disquiet about how the game is really working.

Despite this potentially exciting set up, the game sequences lack the expected fizz and despite the cinematic style of the writing, they drag, not helped by the clunking acronyms and ‘gamer-speak.’ The characters are two-dimensional, even the main protagonist Rogan who at least has been given some family background, and their relationships lack chemistry and are workmanlike at best.

Trent Reedy has written some really good novels – the first two novels in The Last Full Measure series, Words in the Dust – so he clearly has talent. But this novel feels like the start of a series that has been commissioned to appeal to kids who are more interested in video games than books and just falls flat.

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The Last Full Measure by Trent Reedy

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last full measureThe Last Full Measure by Trent Reedy
Divided We Fall, Bk 3
Scholastic/Levine, 2016

The 2nd Civil War, which 18 year-old Danny Wright was accidentally instrumental in starting, rages on as more states secede from the Union. Danny and friends are now back in Freedom Lake, Iowa, which is firmly under the thumb of the white supremacist Brotherhood of the White Eagle. Danny is no longer interested in fighting, and can think only of getting out of the war, so when he comes across a resistance movement that is planning to do just that, he is eager to join. But can he ever truly escape?

This lengthy final book in the trilogy once again gives Danny many moral challenges and decisions to make, and many bullet-intense action sequences. However, unnecessarily longwinded news bulletins, from the rest of Pan America and the world which is crumbling into World War III, slow the pace to a crawl and take the focus off the main story.

Does this work as a possible parable for the near future? Parallels are drawn with the Nazis in World War II, and some of the language and arguments put in the mouths of characters in the book, both national and international, is not too far off what we’re hearing now. Though Danny himself does not “give a shit about any of that liberal versus conservative stuff”, I suspect that with the possibility of President Donald Trump looming, many readers may be more politically conscious. There is even a sly poke at Trump, as Mexico closes the border to fleeing Americans.

Reedy has succeeded rather too well in giving his protagonist the authentic voice of a not particularly well-educated or articulate teen boy, and while this was not too much of an issue in the first two books, it becomes very grating now – the number of times Danny describes something as “jacked-up” is off the charts, and describing his girlfriend as hot because she is carrying a rifle feels distinctly icky. Danny’s close friends still don’t have much dimension, and the plethora of other characters are usually nothing more than a string of names, though I grew rather fond of Mrs Pierce, the elderly and sage leader of the resistance.

With the now-requisite death of a major character, and a somewhat foreboding ending, Reedy finishes off the trilogy in what should be a satisfying and emotional way. However, by that point I was just skimming through to get to the end, so I was more than a little disappointed that what had started out so promisingly in Divided We Fall, ended up an overly ambitious and somewhat flabby damp squib.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Burning Nation by Trent Reedy

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burning nationBurning Nation by Trent Reedy
Levine, 2015.

In contrast to The Luck Uglies sequel, Trent Reedy’s Burning Nation is a pretty successful follow-up to Divided We Fall. I think the difference is that this sequel appears to have been planned – it flows organically from the first book, building on the situation while keeping the same thrilling pace and gripping storylines.

17 year-old Idaho National Guard Private Danny Wright and his unit are drawn deeper into the conflict between the newly established Republic of Idaho and the Federal Government. As it escalates into full blown Civil War, Danny’s old high school friends join the struggle, initially as support and later as fully committed combatants. Fractures across other states deepen the crisis, and a darker side of the Idaho resistance emerges.

The plotting in Burning Nation is spectacularly good: the author draws the reader along through the all too believable and inevitable breakdown of law, swiftly followed by the imposition of military governance. Danny is an engagingly committed, yet naïve, protagonist – that he is a key player in this battle feels unnervingly credible – and though he isn’t the most articulate fellow, he gives the reader an absolutely visceral feel of the realities of combat.

Reedy uses a similar structure to the first book, with interspersed news reports and social media commentary giving the reader a perspective on the war that Danny does not have. However, in Burning Nation, this seems to be less about balancing the argument – there’s not much airtime for opponents of the war – and more about showing the apparent inevitability of the collapse of the United States.

There is a lot (a lot!) of brutal violence including our young protagonist killing multiple “Feds” as well as being extensively tortured himself. Danny has something of a conscience about the rampant shootings, though frequently justifies it to himself because the Feds killed his mother. Even so, much of the killing still feels sadistic and like a “badass” videogame, and Cal Riccon is being set up as one who goes too far in this respect. There is explicit reference to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the idea of being perceived as an insurgent or rebel on the one hand, or a terrorist on the other is briefly touched on.

Character development is not Mr. Reedy’s strong point. I found the initial section, in particular, confusing as there are so many characters who are just names; it feels much more comfortable when the cast is whittled down mainly to Danny and his high school friends, though even they feel pretty interchangeable.  But I liked that Danny did at least comment on the absurdity of worrying about a love triangle when all is going to hell in a handbasket around him.

It looks like the next book, The Last Full Measure, will not be the closer. I feel that Mr. Reedy knows where he’s driving this series and if he keeps up this pace and the plotting, I’m happy to go along for the ride and I’m sure many teens will be too.

Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy

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divided we fallDivided We Fall by Trent Reedy
Levine, 2014.

Combining gun-toting action with moral ambiguity, this first book in a YA trilogy, set in a just over the horizon future, starts with an all too believable clash between the state of Idaho and the Federal Government, that rapidly escalates into a military standoff. In the center of this is 17-year-old Danny Wright, a private in the Idaho National Guard whose accidental shot seems to precipitate the crisis.

Danny is a typical high school senior in Freedom Lake, Idaho, who enjoys football, partying and rodeo, and he is also intensely proud of being a soldier as his now-dead father was before him. Danny’s confusion and testosterone driven choices feel real, and make him an unusual and well-developed protagonist. Other characters, both teen and soldiers, however, feel rather interchangeable and generic.

Reedy (Words in the Dust, 2011) sets up an intriguingly complex situation, with both sides of the conflict given airtime through snippets of news reportage and social media, though the constitutional issues are explicated rather clunkily, and unnecessarily, through a school civics class. The book doesn’t fall definitively on either political side, but Danny, again unusually, is definitely on the conservative/libertarian end of the spectrum. His girlfriend, JoBell, is initially the mouthpiece for the liberal argument, though later becomes more layered

Danny faces several moral dilemmas with no easy choices, and there are real consequences for his decisions that he cannot always justify. Once the rather slow set up is complete, the pace of the action rattles along, ending with a cliffhanger that will leave teen readers excited for the next installment.

The Luck Uglies: Fork-Tongue Charmers by Paul Durham

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fork tongue charmersThe Luck Uglies: Fork-Tongue Charmers by Paul Durham
Harper, 2015.

It’s sequel week at bibliobrit! Today I’ll be looking at the sequel to Cybil-winning The Luck Uglies and on Thursday I’ll review Trent Reedy’s Burning Nation, the sequel to Divided We Fall, which I reviewed last week. I don’t often read sequels as a) they’re usually disappointing, particularly if they’re the second book in a trilogy (henceforth known as DSBIT) and b) I’d rather move on to something fresh. But in both these cases, there was something special about the first book that made me want to keep reading.

Fork-Tongue Charmers sadly falls into the pit of DSBIT. It lacks the imagination of the first book and the structure is a series of mini-climaxes, none of which are fully developed. There’s too much explanation needed because the plot is too complicated, and the characters don’t really develop much from the first book. Even the map, of the Isle of Pest, feels skimpy compared to the glorious one of Village Drowning in the first book.

Earl Longchance has appointed a vicious new Constable who seems to be on a personal vengeance mission against Rye and the rest of the O’Chanter family. So they, along with Rye’s friends, Folly and Quinn, take off for Pest, the home island of Rye’s mother. But even there, they do not seem to be safe from Constable Valant.

The middle section of the book, set on Pest’s High Isle, is most satisfying and inventive. Enjoyable new characters and customs are introduced, and the plot feels like it has time to breathe. This part’s culminating battle, between the Belongers (as the islanders call themselves) and the Uninvited Longchance soldiers, has some twitches of the nimble imagination I was longing for, but is over all too quickly.

Also new are the Fork-Tongue Charmers – a shady faction of the Luck Uglies – and their leader, Slinister. He is interestingly conflicted, and makes a decent replacement for the largely absent effete Earl as the villain of the piece.

Rye, herself, continues to develop as her understanding of her family’s history grows. However, she is starting to feel more like a generic spunky, undeterrable protagonist and less like the fully rounded quirky character we came to love. And Quinn and Folly, without the backdrop of Drowning, are one-dimensional plot pawns.

If all this feels a bit harsh, it’s because Fork-Tongue Charmers felt like such a let down compared to The Luck Uglies. Really it’s still a pretty good read, but it just stumbles when put up against the profoundly gifted first born.