Thursday, 4 July 2013

Playing Tyler - Book Review

Playing Tyler
by T. L. Costa

Angry Robot Ebook Store
Amazon (UK) (USA)

Tyler MacCandless can’t focus, even when he takes his medication. He can’t focus on school, on his future, on a book, on much of anything other than taking care of his older brother, Brandon, who’s in rehab for heroin abuse… again.

Tyler’s dad is dead and his mom has mentally checked out. The only person he can really count on is his Civilian Air Patrol Mentor, Rick. The one thing in life it seems he doesn’t suck at is playing video games and, well, that’s probably not going to get him into college.

Just when it seems like his future is on a collision course with a life sentence at McDonald’s, Rick asks him to test a video game. If his score’s high enough, it could earn him a place in flight school and win him the future he was certain that he could never have. And when he falls in love with the game’s designer, the legendary gamer Ani, Tyler thinks his life might finally be turning around.

That is, until Brandon goes MIA from rehab and Tyler and Ani discover that the game is more than it seems. Now Tyler will have to figure out what’s really going on in time to save his brother… and prevent his own future from going down in flames. (Synopsis from Goodreads)


I was excited about reading this one. I love video games, so I like stories with connections to video games, and the plot sounded so intriguing. Although I liked certain aspects of the book, however, I did find it disappointing.

The characters are written with very distinctive voices, particularly the main character, Tyler. He has ADHD, and this is reflected in the way he tells the story. When he becomes more agitated and restless, the punctuation begins to break down and his thoughts all run into each other, often with short, sharp sentences that jump to another thought without finishing. This captures his state of mind really well, and I think it was cleverly done, but unfortunately it did become quite annoying very quickly.

This isn’t helped by the fact that I found Tyler to be an extremely annoying character in general. I think the author probably did a brilliant job of portraying an authentic teenage boy’s thoughts, but on the other hand, this meant that we get a lot of repetition of how amazing this girl is who plays games, and is hot, and plays games and is really hot, and can actually beat boys at games (and is hot). Sigh. Tyler’s obsession with Ani not only made it seem like gamer girls are incredibly rare (they really aren’t), it also became stalkerish very quickly. Ani makes it clear that they can’t hang out, but about a hundred unreturned emails later, not to mention Tyler scouting out the college campus for her, she finally gives in. Tyler can get quite possessive in his thoughts too, wanting to hit people who flirt with his mother or admire his girlfriend. Later, Tyler’s reactions to major plot events seemed to be a bit all over the place, which, while it did make sense, was frustrating to read. I think he was realistically written, but there were times that I just couldn’t like him and didn’t really want to be in his head.

So Tyler himself was a bit of a miss for me, but there were some aspects of the story that I really liked. Tyler is testing a flight simulator that will be used to train pilots to fly drones. There are some really good questions raised about the war on terror, war in general, and what ‘terrorism’ even means. The story looks at the effect of war from a US point of view, exploring the effects of war on the soldiers who come home, on their families, and on the people working in a non-combative role. This works really well, as it shows how war often seems like a distant thing that people like Tyler and Ani find it hard to connect to on a personal level. In fact, they both distance themselves completely from it in their own minds, and only feel the horror of it when they see how deeply they are actually involved. I thought the author did a good job of presenting these moral issues. They were perhaps a little unsubtle in places, but right for the intended audience.

I also really liked the inclusion of Tyler’s brother Brandon’s drug addiction, and the honest look at how drugs destroy lives, both the addict’s life and their family's. Combining two themes, the war on terror with the war on drugs, is very clever, as both are wrapped up in similar rhetoric and propaganda. Tyler finds out that he is involved in both these conflicts on a much more personal level than he could have imagined.

These aspects of the story were strong, and I thought it was a shame that they weren’t the focus earlier on. I found the love story to be irritating at best, and it certainly took too long for things to get going to keep me interested. I thought the major plot point that drove the story was obvious from the start, disappointingly so, which made it even more frustrating that it took so long to get there. I did also find the premise itself a bit hard to believe, as if there’s one thing bored gamers can be guaranteed to do, it’s shoot at the NPCs, or crash on purpose to see what happens, or fly to the edges of the map to see what’s there.

So, some great ideas and themes, wrapped up with a character and romance that I found very annoying. By the end this was an interesting read, but I would have enjoyed this a lot more if it hadn’t taken so long for the story to get going.

Thank you to Strange Chemistry and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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