Author: Marie Lu
Publishing: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers on September 12, 2017
Hardcover, 368 pages
Genre: YA, sci-fi, near-future
For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.
Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.
Warcross (A | GR) is currently a huge sensation in YA literature, but it was a bit of a disappointing read for me. I have yet to read her wildly popular series, Legend (A | GR) or The Young Elites (A | GR) so this novel was my first introduction to Marie Lu.
Finally, here is a YA near future novel that isn’t apocalyptic, dystopian, bleak or colorless. In fact, even the cover’s use of eye-catching tones draws you in while promising a prisma-color adventure with future technology. Unfortunately, the visual world-building was intriguing but the story lacked true substance. Warcross was imaginative and highly readable. The fast, action-based plot kept moving for the entire book, despite the lack of an original storyline (Snow Crash, Ender’s Game, Ready Player One, and Tron all came to mind as I was reading). The groundwork was there for a great story, it just didn’t quite deliver for me.
Emika Chen has nothing to lose. She’s down to her last $13 and she’ll be out of her apartment by the end of the week. She’s a struggling hacker, working as a bounty hunter and waitress just to try and make ends meet. While technically banned from playing the international MMO, Warcross due to her criminal record, Emika still finds time to log into the world-wide sensation as often as possible. When she hacks into the international Warcross Championships to earn a quick buck, she becomes terrified she’ll be arrested when she glitches herself directly into the action. To her surprise, Hideo Tanaka, the inventor of the Neurolink technology that allows individuals to have a fully immersive online experience, invites her to Tokyo to participate in the events as an undercover hacker.
Hideo Tanaka is a bit more than a techno-heartthrob. He’s Emika’s idol, her role model, and then later her boss. He’s a child prodigy, talented, uber rich, and yet his personality was … lacking. I think I would have preferred him be more a mentor than a lover, but perhaps that’s just me. I didn’t think that they had chemistry. Hideo was literally her childhood crush, and I felt like he was interested in her only because she was both intelligent and new. The relationship distracted her from the team bonding and changed her a bit from being this hardass, desperate punk to someone who skived off training practices to hang out with her boyfriend. Bring back desperate Emika who just doesn’t want to live in cardboard box!
I will say that I truly appreciated the thought the Marie Lu put into Emika’s backstory. One of the YA tropes that really annoys me is ‘The Insta-Hero”. Some kid with no known aptitude or knowledge gets dropped into a completely new situation and BAM–they just happen to be the best one there/save the day/get the girl/stop all the monsters/conquer the hero with barely a head nod to hard work and study. Marie Lu did an excellent job of NOT falling into that trap. Emika Chen was someone that I wanted to root for. She not only had the natural aptitude to be a good hacker, but she put in tons of hours of hard work and study to be as good as she was. I actually believed that she was talented and smart. Her hard work and street skills enhanced her natural ability to understand complex projects.
On the other hand, I would like to have seen her struggle a bit more. I’m still not entirely sure how her hacking actually worked. I think if Emika had run into difficulties with her hacking code, it could have been explained more. Instead, there was a lot of hand-waving and telling the reader than she found a problem. Maybe it’s the scientist in me, but I wanted to know HOW and WHY.
My biggest disappointment with the story was with the secondary characters. Why did we not spend more time with them? They were all so unique and interesting, with their own personalities and personal drama. You’ve got everything! POC, disabilities, different backgrounds, genders, everything was represented. By not spending time with them though, I almost felt that their diversity took over their individuality and personalities The whole point of this battle was that teams were formed to battle each other, but I did not get a sense of camaraderie from Emi. She was aloof, and it didn’t feel like she even wanted to try to get to know her teammates.
When I read the description, I thought the book was going to be focused on the championship games, however a lot of it was focused on Emika’s burgeoning relationship with Hideo. I wanted to spend more time following Emika’s training with her team and in the actual competition, but they almost felt like a side quest to the main adventure of instalove. I know that love stories impinging on plot are part of the hazard of reading YA, but I felt as if I was just skimming the surface of a truly fascinating world. I was left frustrated because I just wanted more.
The technology was just enough advanced to be really creative and it seemed like a natural extension of a current tech trajectory. I did, however, have some frustrations about the neurological-based technology, mostly that it was just under-developed as a concept. Why was Neurolink only used in just a game? Where were the other games? How did this technology change how business, politics, or education was conducted? The world outside of the game didn’t seem to be enhanced by by this new technology except as a visual means. Warcross, the game, felt like a more immersive version of The Sims or Second Life, except during the championships when it became an MMORPG version of capture the flag for elite players.
World-building in general was really well done. It felt real. The story is told in 1st person, from Emika’s POV. I felt fully immersed in NYC and Tokyo. The descriptive writing in first person is hard to balance rights, but Lu nailed it. The visuals were compelling and she nailed the settings. I will applaud Marie Lu for addressing some of the social implications of the neurolink. I think by doing so, it made the world building that much more believable. That being said, for revolving around a huge, international competition, the stakes didn’t seem high enough. In Divergent, Tris competes to become Dauntless; in Hunger Games, Katniss competes for her life. In Warcross, this was just a game. I could not figure out what the other players saw in the game besides the usual suspects of fame, money, and sponsorship.
Overall, the diversity of the cast, the stellar descriptive and visual worldbuilding made for an pretty good introduction to YA science fiction, but the lackluster romance and the hand waving of technology took me out of the story. Warcross was entertaining, but I think it could have been so much more than that. The second installment has the potential of being able to solve some of my complaints, but that’s to be determined. Ultimately, it’s a fast, fun read, but vastly underdeveloped. I’m not planning on giving up on the series (duology? trilogy?) or Marie Lu as an author, but I might adjust my expectations for the rest of her books.
Recommended for: Younger YA fans or for those that are just being introduced to YA science fiction. Also, for fans of: Ready Player One, YA, video games, rainbow hair, Ender’s Game.
Grade: 2.5 stars/C
Order your copy here: (Amazon)
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