Nicole Kornher-Stace, 2021

Premise: Sure, Mal has a weird obsession with one of the famous SecOps, but doesn't everyone? She's just trying to keep her head down and earn enough water to survive until she learns something she can't ignore.

This book starts with the protagonist playing a video game, but unlike some books, this doesn't have any time for nostalgia or wish fulfillment. In a dystopia ruled by warring factions that evolved from corporations, resources are severely rationed or for sale at exorbitant prices, and the prevalence and importance of immersive video games (before power curfew, anyway) is clearly meant as the local "bread and circuses."

The people are encouraged to idolize a small group of superpowered soldiers who fight in the constant war and have doppelgangers in the game. The plot kicks off when Mal and her friend and gaming partner Jessa are given some damning information about the origins of these soldiers. They end up hip-deep in conspiracies and cover-ups before they know it. Soon they have to figure out if there's anything they can do that will allow them to a) survive and b) live with themselves.

I found this an extremely compelling read that was hard to put down. It somehow manages to be both realistically brutal and horrific (in how the characters are treated by people and organizations with power) and fundamentally hopeful. Several times in the course of the story, people with very little are willing to try to pull together and stand up for what's right against those who would seek profit at all costs. 

My main quibble was about the relationship between Mal and 22. Not that I think her obsession has to be anything more in action than it is, but it seemed to come literally from nowhere. At the same time, it was important enough that I kept expecting a reveal about its origin (based on plot developments). Unless I missed something, that never happened, and although I didn't want a big dramatic scene, the final act felt like it was missing some small element, and that could have been it. 

Still, a very effective and emotional read based in a too-plausible corporate dystopia. Highly recommended.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book 


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