Like everyone else she knows, Mallory is an orphan of the corporate war. As a child, she lost her parents, her home, and her entire building in an airstrike. As an adult, she lives in a cramped hotel room with eight other people, all of them working multiple jobs to try to afford water and make ends meet. And the job she’s best at is streaming a popular VR war game. The best part of the game isn’t killing enemy combatants, though—it’s catching in-game glimpses of SpecOps operatives, celebrity supersoldiers grown and owned by Stellaxis, the corporation that runs the America she lives in.
Until a chance encounter with a SpecOps operative in the game leads Mal to a horrifying discovery: the real-life operatives weren’t created by Stellaxis. They were kids, just like her, who lost everything in the war, and were stolen and augmented and tortured into becoming supersoldiers. The world worships them, but the world believes a lie.
The company controls every part of their lives, and defying them puts everything at risk—her water ration, her livelihood, her connectivity, her friends, her life—but she can’t just sit on the knowledge. She has to do something—even if doing something will bring the wrath of the most powerful company in the world down upon her.
I remember seeing this cover around many times last year but never felt like reading it but my dear blogger friend Misty really liked the book, so I finally decided to give it a try this year.
The one refrain I’ve heard is the constant comparisons to Ready Player One but that doesn’t matter to me because I have neither read the book nor watched the movie. I think because I’m not a gamer at all, a book with gaming and VR as it’s important components didn’t feel like it was for me. And this book starts off with an in-game sequence. But I think the author did a good job making the book accessible for non gamers like me with enough explanations – some might call it infodumping but I don’t find it to be too bad. The pacing also is pretty fast and there weren’t many moments where I felt bored. I also thought the idea of a future in which two corporations bought all the states and everything is rationed for the people was interesting. I thought the line about implants being distributed for free but water being charged heavily for was very memorable. The author tries to incorporate elements like anti-capitalism and rebellion and the importance of working together in the face of oppression and I thought it felt organic to the story if not deeply explored.
Our main character Mal is brave and kind and very much disposed to helping people who are in trouble, even if she doesn’t have much better herself. Her partner in crime and best friend Jessa may not seem like she is the same but she is ever loyal and supportive, even in dangerous situations. The story is exclusively told through Mal’s POV though and while she is a lovely person at heart, she did annoy me a little but I can’t actually articulate why. Things also happened very conveniently for her when she needed them but I guess I can’t begrudge her that. But I will not deny that I absolutely love the fact that she is aroace and it’s well integrated into her personality without ever spelling it out. The super soldiers /celebrities also form a major backdrop in the story even if their physical presence is less. I loved the kind of bond that Mal was able to create with a couple of them in a short amount of time and the lengths she was ready to go through for their sake. There are a few other side characters too who made impressions but they had very little page time.
To conclude, this was an engaging and interesting story about a dystopian corporate oligarchy and how people survive in this world where even basic necessities like food and water are rationed and in the control of two companies. You have some fun characters, an anti capitalist message and I love seeing an aroace character as well as great platonic relationships represented. While it’s quite a bit of an open ending for a standalone novel, I think it worked for the kind of setup this book has.