This was fun, loads of fun. Not as good as <b>Ready Player One</b> -- not sure it could've been, so let's just take that off the table. But, it taps into the same vein of pop culture, gaming, and a desire for something that's missing -- family, father, social acceptance, etc. You take these elements, add a sense of humor and an adventure-driven plot and you get a winning read.
Now, Zack Lightman isn't Wade Watts -- he has friends, he has a great Mom (good grandparents, too, it seems), and some sort of a future. Okay, his life is a lot better than Wade's. But, it's not perfect. Especially when he -- and he alone --sees a space ship from a video game outside the window of his High School. He figures he's losing his marbles. And, you have to admit, the evidence is pretty convincing.
Until the next day, when <i>another</i> spaceship from the game lands at school -- and others see it. It's from the Earth Defense Alliance, and they've come for Zack. Not just Zack -- all over the globe, they're recruiting the best players of a couple of games (one flight combat-based, one ground-war based) to join a global force to defend the planet from an immanent alien invasion.
On the one hand, this is a dream come true for a die-hard gamer, SF nut, and daydreamer -- a chance for glory, a chance to save the world, a chance to...meet a hot programmer-slash-gamer. On the other hand, did I mention the immanent alien invasion and near-certain death of all humanity (including Zack)?
Cline doesn't give us anything new here - he takes every movie/novel/game about battles in space, alien invasions, First Contact, and so on that he's seen/read/played (and actually tells you in the narrative which are the major influences); mixes them up and gives us one, big, gooey SF mishmash. I could read that all day long. Actually, I did. And I'd gladly do it again.
<b>Ready Player One</b> had a very limited cast -- but Cline doesn't repeat that. Zack has a couple of friends in high school, an ex-girlfriend, an old enemy, a mom, a boss. And then there's everyone in the EDA that he meets -- some higher ranking officers, his teammates and a new love interest. There are common bonds between all of them, but they're not all just variations on Zack (like <b>RPO</b>'s Wade and co.). I liked every character -- even the less noble ones. These folks had heart, they had style -- each one of them made me smile in a different way.
It's easy to write-off Cline's stuff as a litany of pop culture references with a thin veneer of plot. But that's a mistake. His strength is the soul he puts into these characters. It's in the interpersonal relationships, emotions, stakes -- that's where he shines. Even when you know something's going to happen, even when you can see it coming 10 miles away, Cline still nails it. The ability to get to the emotional core -- what some might call the emotional truth -- of a scene, of a connection between characters? That covers up for a lot of shortcomings.
The worst thing about this book? I've read every Cline novel in existence. So the wait begins for whatever's next.
I won my copy of this from the nice folks over at <a href="http://www.readitforward.com/" target="_blank">Read It Forward</a>, if you're not checking into that site on a regular basis, you're missing something.