I received an ARC of this book from the Publisher, via Netgalley, this does not affect my opinion of this book or the content of my review.
In the domed city of Evanescence, appearance is everything. A Natural Born amongst genetically-altered Aristocrats, all Ella ever wanted was to be like everyone else. Augmented, sparkling, and perfect. Then…the crash. Devastated by her father’s death and struggling with her new physical limitations, Ella is terrified to learn she is not just alone, but little more than a prisoner.
Her only escape is to lose herself in Nexis, the hugely popular virtual reality game her father created. In Nexis she meets Guster, a senior player who guides Ella through the strange and compelling new world she now inhabits. He offers Ella guidance, friendship…and something more. Something that allows her to forget about the “real” world, and makes her feel whole again.
But Nexis isn’t quite the game everyone thinks it is.
And it’s been waiting for Ella.
YA/NA, can we ever really escape this genre. It is so ubiquitous and so tempting. Look at that cover, check out that blurb, can you see why I would be tempted?
So this is a post-apocalytic dystopian where there are strict class rules and little to no room for upward mobility. Ella, grew up on the lower fringes of the Aristocracy, and is a Natural, meaning that unlike most of the Aristocrats (particularly the Elites) she has not been Altered or Modified-though she does still have a thought modification chip as everyone is her world does. But her father, in one of those rare opportunities for upward mobility, creates a society altering virtual reality game that raises them to the heights of their society.
If you note all the random capitalizations, that is as the author intends, as there is an explanation in the initial info-dumping of the story about how they spell things differently now and they use more capitalization.
There are a ton of really interesting concepts, it is kind of like we are plopped down into a hyper technical Panem Capital, but instead of the 13 districts we have a virtual wasteland which all but the Aristocrats must scrabble to survive in. And I suspect that if I read more YA/NA I might recognize more of the motifs. It wasn’t that it is a poorly done mashup, the world building is cohesive enough. It is just that some things seem vaguely familiar, as if I have read the blurbs or seen the movie trailers, not enough to make me think of something directly, like I did with the Hunger Games, but just enough to catch my attention. And I think that all these concepts being jammed in were what made it such a slog. Plus, it took about the first quarter of the book to really feel like things were going anywhere and it just about bludgeons you to death on the life lessons of loving yourself and humanity’s penchant for destruction. There’s no subtlety at all.
But then we hit the 25% mark and things seem to speed up. I spent a good bit of that section with an uncomfortable lump in the pit of my stomach. Basically what is happening is this: Ella has her Real Life which is unabashedly awful, and Nexis Life which is mostly very good. In Real Life she has basically no one, and in Nexis Life she has friends in the form of the Trickesters and a boy she loves. In Real Life she needs to find out why the bad things are happening (that is very obtuse but I don’t want to spoil it) and in Nexis she is on a quest with her fellow Tricksters. I make it sound prosaic, but it isn’t it is really good and there is quite a bit of emotional growth.
And then at around the 50% mark things slow back down to a crawl. There is still a lot of emotional stuff going on, but the story itself seems to revert back to its snail pace and I almost couldn’t force myself through it. Yes we were able to see the relationship between Ella and Gus (her love interest) deepen. But somehow that didn’t seem like enough. And there were some action adventure sequences too, but that didn’t seem enough either. I know the whole thing is only around 300 pages, but it seriously feels like the longest book I have ever read.
And then bang, at around the three quarters mark we are back to warp speed and an enormous head trip. Actually several of them, and it was very well done, interesting and exciting. I became excited to see how the book would end and where the series would go. Then the author sets up for a freaking love triangle for the next book and the love interest I like better does something boneheaded too.
Honestly I struggled with how to rate this. It was hard for me to finish and there were parts I didn’t like. But there were parts I absolutely enjoyed too. And the entire concept was really interesting, and I genuinely like Ella and Gus, though his absolute enrapture over her is a slightly off-putting and one of those NA tropes I don’t care for. And I will almost certainly read the next one because I am fiendishly curious where this whole thing is going. But you know what? I have a feeling that I will start out a bit miffed when I do start it and I hope the author resolves the whole love triangle thing PDQ.
So where does that leave me? Not a stellar rating, but an OK one. And I think this may turn out to be a popular book, probably deservedly so. It is well written, intricate, and has some heft to it. It is just that I am at least a half step out of sync from this book’s primary audience.
And if you want another perspective and some more information on the history of this world, check out this blog.