When I first read the summary for this book, I thought, "Wow, this sounds a lot like WarGames." Unfortunately for this book, and for me, it was more like Spy Kids 3: Game Over. I think my biggest qualm with this book, apart from the heroine Emika, who I spent most of the beginning of this book wanting to slap, was the fact that it reads like it was written by someone who has never really played an MMORPG. I gamed pretty seriously for about fifteen years, so when I get a book about video games, I judge them based on that. I think WARCROSS desperately wanted to be like READY PLAYER ONE, but the author appeared to lack that firsthand knowledge and passion for the subject, so the NeuroLink and WarCross came off as a rather pale and weak imitation of OASIS. (God, what wouldn't I give for a real-life OASIS.)
The summary is pretty simple. Emika is a teenage hacker who is poor and uses a bootleg version of WarCross to access the site. HMM, DOES THAT SOUND LIKE READY PLAYER ONE? I THINK IT DOES. One day, she accidentally blows her cover by hacking one of the championship WarCross tournaments. The inventor of the game, Hideo Tanaka, takes an interest in Emika after that, offering her an opportunity to spy on the game to catch the perpetrator of a major security breach.
Emika ends up competing in the tournament under cover and ends up bonding with her teammates while also getting to know the elusive Tanaka more. But as she chases the evil hacker through the games, she quickly learns that morality is not as black and white as she thought - particularly not when it comes to the virtual world and, especially, technology itself. Because, you know, all books about technology have to talk about ethics. I'm not being facetious. The internet has changed a lot of rules about what is and isn't okay. It's like being in international-freaking-waters all the flim-flammed time. Emika herself is acquainted with vigilante justice because the "criminal record" she keeps bragging about happened when she doxxed a bunch of kids (and teachers) at her old school who picked on this one girl. That was actually something I took issue with, because the book kind of goes like, "Well, this isn't okay, but also isn't Emika sooooo awesome for doing it, anyway?" And I kind of side-eyed that, because no, I don't think two wrongs make a right. I don't like vigilante justice. In fact, one of the most powerful moments in this book I'm reading right now - Diana Gabaldon's DRAGONFLY IN AMBER - occurs when Claire has the opportunity to get revenge on this girl who wronged her in the previous book, but she doesn't take it - because two wrongs don't make a right.
I also didn't really buy the romantic chemistry between Emika and Hideo. I didn't understand why he liked her so much (maybe because I didn't like her). I thought Hideo was interesting - I'm a sucker for brooding intellectual types - and I'd be excited to learn more about him, but Emika was not a very good character. She changes, too. In the beginning, she's edgy and angry and desperate, and then as soon as she gets involved in the games she becomes a blushing, chipper, go-getter, and I'm just like, "I DON'T KNOW WHO SHE IS." Both literally, and also Mariah Carey style, because F U, Emika.
Now that I've gotten the complaining (mostly) out of my system, let me talk about what worked. I loved the setting. I just got back from Japan, and Marie Lu portrays Shibuya as the futuristic, commercialistic mecca that it is. I was so overwhelmed by the sights and the crowds, and remember: this is coming from someone who spends all their time in San Francisco. Shibuya is so crowded and insane that even people who are used to big cities feel properly intimidated. Such is its marvel.
I also liked Hideo, and most of the secondary characters, too. There's great rep in here - tons of people of color (including both the heroine and the love interest); LGBT characters; one of the characters is in a wheelchair; and of course, I love the fact that the heroine is in STEM. I've started collecting stories about female characters in STEM, because I think that's so important. (If you want to check out what I've got so far, check out my stem-heroines shelf on Goodreads.)
Lastly, despite rolling my eyes at this interpretation of a cyber-world - I mean, she literally has the "dark net" in this book set up like an actual pirate bazaar LOL, with drugs just set out on tables like a frigging roadside stand and people betting on illegal things in virtual bars like they're picking out racehorses - the action sequences are very engaging. I wish this book was more reminiscent of typical MMORPGs...but oh, wait, I'm complaining again and this is supposed to be the "positive" section, ha. So yes, the action sequences were great, and despite my hang-ups, the pages went by pretty quickly once I got past that awful beginning. If the game parts themselves are like something out of Spy Kids, I'd say the rest of the book is 1/3 The Matrix, 1/3 The Hunger Games, and 1/3 Ready Player One.
It wasn't bad, and I'd read the sequel when it comes out. I guessed one of those twists (the big one), but not the more sweeping one in scope that came right before that. How Orwellian.
3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars