In many ways, it serves as a companion to Ready Player One. It follows Zoe Ashe from a life of poverty in a suburban trailer park through a terrifying hunt to an inheritance she didn’t know awaited her. It has the same basic plot as the aforementioned book (which I reviewed earlier in the year), but diverges in a number of distinct ways.
For starters, the protagonist here is a woman. I don’t think that’s a small point, either. In fact, I think this is the only book I’ve read this year which had a female protagonist as the central character. And that’s possibly the most disappointing sentence I’ve written in any of my reviews.
Perhaps most importantly, however, is that her being a woman doesn’t feel incidental to me. David Wong is a writer and podcaster for Cracked, and he’s spent a great deal of time breaking down popular culture and analyzing the effects it has on our society. Based on what I’ve seen and read of him, I’m pretty sure that giving the lead role in this story to a woman was a conscious decision on his part. It’s worth noting, moreover, that Zoey Ashe is a strong female character, but not unrealistically so. She’s a normal woman, with normal expectations for her life. When confronted by homicidal maniacs intent on her death and dismemberment, she responds how, I think, any real person would: terror. But she’s not a woman in distress who needs to be rescued by men; she’s a woman out of her element and whose emotions run the gamut from despair to a simple desire to not put up with bullshit anymore. Though the net result is that she has men around her trying to help her resolve her problems, she has an inner strength that is both refreshing in its realism, and intoxicating for the agency it gives her.
Given that all the books I’ve read this year (not counting the non-fiction) were centered around smart-ass men who could handle any obstacle, I can’t overestimate how refreshing it is to read a book about a smart ass woman who has depth and complexity.
The other issue dealt with here is poverty and the sudden accumulation of indescribable wealth. I can’t help comparing this to Ready Player One, given the general similarities and fact that I read it just a few months ago. Both had characters who won a vast fortune that unexpectedly brought them out of the poverty they had always known. The difference for me is that the dichotomy in social status feels like a weight for Zoey Ashe in a way that it never did for Wade Watts (the protagonist in Ready Player One). It’s not just something she has to overcome, it impacts how she looks at the world. It marks her, and shows that she doesn’t belong in a world where every whim gets met.
Violence is handled quite differently, as well. Though much of the violence, like much of the story, is absurd (the main villain is driven by “The Juice”, which is a lust for killing, and is bionically enhanced to the point that he punches skyscrapers into oblivion), there are real consequences for the victims of it. If someone gets punched in the face by a comically overpowered metal fist, their teeth are shattered in their mouth. Characters can die in this book. Morbid as this sounds, that’s refreshing. Without the added wrinkle of consequence, these kinds of stories quickly become uninteresting and generic.
The novelty in Ready Player One is that the 1980s gaming culture is the driving plot device. The book is filled with allusion, and it’s referential nature gives the entire book a texture that you don’t often get to experience. None of that is a criticism, by the way. It works in that book. But, as can be seen in Ernest Cline’s follow-up Armada, what was a neat trick can also be a crutch. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits relies on no such novelty. This is a crisp science fiction thriller, and it is both grounded by a strong character, and lightened by a low key humor that pervades the work.
My only real complaint is that the secondary characters (including the villains) are mostly one dimensional, but this complaint is only minor given how much I enjoyed the protagonist.