From the author of the Storied Life of AJ Firky, another multi-decade spanning quiet story of lonely people trying to find family and community with mixed results.
Plot: Sam was in a car accident that killed his mother and landed him in the hospital with a fractured foot. He hasn’t spoken a word in six weeks when Sadie, who was visiting a family member, walks into the quasi-living room in the hospital where he’s playing video games and asks to play. He lets her. Then the hospital staff ask her to come back, and she does, to the tune of 600+ hours. So much so that she won a public service award at her synagogue for all the volunteering she was doing. Which Sam didn’t know about, until he did. We meet them again a decade later, when they are students in university, both obsessed with video games and wanting badly to become the storytellers that had given them the refuges of their youth. And maybe wanting to do just about anything, if they could do it together. Shenanigans ensue.
This is another one of those books that I struggle to give even an approximation of an impartial review. This is for two reasons.
First, while not as avid as Sam and Sadie, I do consider myself a gamer. I’m of two minds as to whether this book is meant for gamers or for people who love gamers and want to understand what the big deal is. Gamers may find validation in how seriously Sam and Sadie and the author take games. Deathly seriously. Games can save lives and cost lives and the wider world seems to fail to grasp this. Still, at least as a person who has never struggled with being taken seriously due to how much I game, that validation didn’t really land. I found myself getting bored. Yes, yes, I understand, making games is really hard and their impact can be significant, how many times must we retread this ground? But I don’t think that would be a universal experience. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure that there is enough here that someone that didn’t already come to the book on the same page (see what I did there?) would have enough to understand why Sam and Sadie made the sacrifices they did, accepted the indignities that they did, tolerated the behaviour that they did. For Sam, Zevin goes to great lengths to help us understand why he loves games as much as he does, but she doesn’t do the same for Sadie, and especially given how much she puts Sadie through, I think that is a real missed opportunity.
Second, I read this book a couple of months after binging all of Mythic Quest on Apple TV. This is not the book’s fault. The problem for me is that setting aside the issues I’ve identified above, taking the meat of the story and the journey Sam and Sadie make and power of video games as a medium of storytelling and of community and of connection… This book takes 13 hours to do it (on audiobook). Mythic Quest hits all the same emotional notes (while telling a clearly different story) in 34 minutes, and it gives it to you with the fantastic Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti.
The one major advantage the book has is that its protagonists are not white WASPs, and that adds dimensions to their experiences of both the gaming industry and the world that can’t be captured in any other way (although I do want to make sure you don’t come away thinking Mythic Quest is about a bunch of straight white men, it’s not at all – the episode is in a way a commentary on how much the industry has changed and the rest of the show is about how much it still needs to). Their differences are handled lovingly, and while they are significant parts of who they are, they are not defined by those differences. Zevin works very hard to create three dimensional people and does so to great effect.
So if you asked me whether you should read this book or watch season 1 episode 5 of Mythic Quest… I’d recommend the latter, but maybe a different way to think about this is that Mythic Quest has given you a gift of getting a sense of a type of story before you invest 13 hours into it.
Important note for my neighbors in Romancelandia – this is not a romance. That shouldn’t dissuade you from reading it, but know what you’re getting into.
TW: parental death, chronic illness, lengthy hospital stays, mental illness, severe depressive episodes, domestic violence, pregnancy, post partum, active shooter situations, murder, homophobia, sexism, racism. There’s a lot going on in this book.