I feel obligated to preface this review by acknowledging that I am neither a gamer nor someone who is very tech-savvy. I also don’t often read science-fiction because it’s sometimes hard for me to follow a lot of the lingo. But none of these concerns stopped me from enjoying Warcross by Marie Lu (released September 12).
I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while. The very concept — a cat and mouse game set in a Ready Player One version of The Hunger Games — was too cool to pass up. And Lu’s worldbuilding and pacing did not disappoint. Honestly, I’m ready for someone to greenlight a movie, because the setting and gear alone would look amazing on a big screen.
The story is from the point-of-view of our heroine, Emika Chen, a teenage hacker and bounty hunter struggling to make ends meet in a futuristic New York City. The only escape for her and millions of other people around the world is the virtual reality game, Warcross, designed by the mysterious and brilliant Hideo Tanaka. Everyone tunes in to watch the international championship games between select teams, including Emika. And in a moment of weakness and desperation, Emika accidentally glitches herself into the game itself, setting her up as an overnight sensation. Her actions catch the eye of Hideo, and he flies her out to Tokyo with a job offer: go undercover in the games to catch a hacker, nicknamed Zero, who is a potential threat to the world of Warcross.
Although the overall plot is rather predictable, it’s the worldbuilding crafted by Lu that immediately hooked me and carried me until the very last page. While some of the gadgets will feel familiar for anyone who has read or watched anything sci-fi (e.g. hoverboards and virtual reality) there is a unique blend of present and future that makes the science feel real and attainable. It’s also just really cool. This is due to the novel’s use of “glasses” (known as NeuroLinks) that connect users to the virtual world of Warcross, where people can earn points by doing anything from going to school to participating in Warcross games. It is what I imagine the world could look like if Google Glass had been successful. I also appreciated that it didn’t feel too unfriendly for those, like me, who aren’t tech-savvy. The details were still relatively easy to follow so that I could keep up with the story while still paying homage to gamers.
The combination of tech, setting, and the protagonist, Emika, really drive this story for me. Emika, as a hacker and bounty hunter, could’ve easily fallen into the trope of the “too tough” female character. The one who kicks butt and takes names as easily as breathing. And while there’s nothing wrong with that at times, there was something immediately relatable about Emika doing her best with what she’s got (she’s just trying to pay her bills like the rest of us). She’s smart, she’s kind, and she’s good at what she does without making it seem flashy or exaggerated. I typically struggle with first-person viewpoints in YA but seeing things through Emika’s perspective really worked for the story.
Also, I need to talk about Hideo for a moment. The broody billionaire look works really well on him. Of course, there’s more to his character than initially meets the eyes, and the slow unveiling of his tragic backstory was a fascinating twist on the character. It’s, of course, no surprise, that he and Emika start to fall for one another. The romance was sweet and not distracting, and I found myself rooting for both characters. But unfortunately, we’ll have to wait and see how things play out.
Perhaps one of the coolest details of this technology-driven society is the “black market”-esque part of the virtual reality setting called the Dark World. Here, people bet illegally on the Warcross games along with other shady activities. The Dark World is a stand-out detail on its own for the sheer fact that it’s the underbelly of the virtual reality world, filled with assignation lotteries, gangsters, and more. And since our protagonist is a hacker, we get to spend some time in the Dark World, with hints that more about Emika’s experience here could be revealed later (fingers crossed it wasn’t just a tease).
Perhaps one of the weaker areas of the story are the secondary characters that aren’t as fleshed out beyond their expected roles as I would have hoped. A few could possibly even be taken out and no one would notice (like Emika’s roommate).
One could also say that the lack of development is to be expected; since Emika is a hacker — and it’s common knowledge that hackers work alone — she’s not used to suddenly working in a team setting and often distances herself from the group without a care. But as the reader, it also makes it hard for me to care about the side characters as well, and I can tell there’s a lot of potential here. It does seem like things could change with the second book where we may see certain characters more frequently, as Emika comes to rely on her new friends more for help. This would be especially great because we have a strong, diverse group: someone who is differently-abled, LGBTQ characters, and POC.
And there’s most definitely going to be a sequel. Going in, I thought it was a one-and-done type deal until I reached that point of realizing there were too many loose ends compared to the number of pages I had left. There’s a lot of strong development ahead in terms of plot and characters. Even though the ending may not come as the biggest surprise, there’s still something about the pacing of the book that makes me anxiously await the second one to see what happens next. I would especially love to see how the technology advances or if there are any cool gadgets that we simply haven’t been introduced to yet. However, I think it’s the unfinished business with the hacker, Zero, that has got me curious. Although there are clues that hint at the hacker’s identity, they feel almost too easy. There’s opportunity for a greater twist and big reveal, and I hope that’s what we get.
I highly recommend Warcross for anyone looking for a fun, easy-going read and who enjoys science-fiction and gaming. Honestly, even if you don’t typically read one or two of these things, I would still recommend this book.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Warcross from G.P. Putnam’s Sons (an imprint of Penguin Random House).
Ashley Spruill is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and has spent her post-graduate career working in public relations. She recently moved from her hometown in North Carolina to the New York Metro Area where she currently lives off ramen and reading as many books as she can on the subway. Otherwise, she’s probably binge-watching something online.
Connect with her on Twitter: @ampsruill