29 May 2013

Review: You

You by Austin Grossman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's always dangerous to judge a book by its cover, but look at this cover. LOOK AT IT. This cover alone, when this book was announced sometime last year, immediately placed it at the top of my list. Only later did I realize that the author, Austin Grossman, also penned the interesting, but flawed, Now I Will Be Invincible, a love letter to various comic tropes. Grossman takes that love letter concept to the heyday of next generation video games in You.

The book is a pretty straightforward plot on a whole, following one programmer at a small company in the age of Doom and such developing the next installment in a massive, critically acclaimed role-playing game, Realms. The creative director has left, there's a new engine that might need to be put in place, and the old engine, developed long ago, is doing...weird things to the older games. The story bounces between the past and present, along with developing a lot of backstory for the games being discussed. It's immensely readable and throws a nice little technological mystery to go along with the fun storytelling.

The gold standard recently for these video game homages has been Ready Player One as of late, and the book is much less that than it is a period piece from near history. Grossman, who works in video games (most recently Dishonered), provides a sincere and credible voice to the story, and the story itself is just technical enough to be super-realistic while still remaining accessible. The narrative flows so well that I pretty much tore through most of this in one evening, which says a lot about the quality. At the end of the day, I really enjoyed reading this book in a way that I don't always "enjoy" reading books I really loved. There's something to that.

Can I quibble about some things? Without a doubt. The main character exists more as a vehicle to move the plot and characters along, and isn't so interesting on his own. The weird plot point that more or less drives the story along is never really resolved in a meaningful or serious way, leaving one part dangling for me. Soon I Will Be Invincible (and, for that matter, The Magician King by Austin's brother, Lev) had the same problem of lacking that clean, stringless ending that tends to work better in literary fiction rather than genre (although these books have a tendency to try and bend literary into genre).

Beyond that, though? A really solid entry in the ever-growing "video game nostalgia" genre. If you're looking for a Wreck-It Ralph romp, you're not going to find it here. Instead, you'll have a great trip back into the place where video games really started for a lot of us. Not too bad.

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