Tark peered through the undergrowth at the cave.  All seemed peaceful and quiet. But appearances could be deceptive, especially in the Forest.

Tark had never taken on a dragon before. He’d never even seen one. He was just a common thiever and dragons were well out of his league. No one below a knight, second class, would attempt such an encounter. And yet, here he was.

‘Oi!’ Tark shouted as he approached the cave.

‘Dragon! Ya in there?’

Years ago when people still spoke about the Matrix films with an air of awed respect, I tended to be the one curmudgeon in the room who would pronounce Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon the far better film. Actually, now that I think about it, I am still saying this, except exchange The Matrix for Inception and it is pretty much the same argument.

Anyway, the reason I chose the more obscure film about characters attempting to escape from a virtual gaming world, was because I felt Oshii was far braver in his approach. In keeping with the Cartesian split between what is and what is fantasy, sf stories that deal with unreal worlds often insist that it is possible to return to an original ‘real world’. Oshii turns away from that and presents us with an infinite series of virtual worlds. ‘Reality’, is nothing more than a different perspective.

To find similar themes in a work of Young Adult fiction was certainly a great treat for me.

Tark and Zyra are thievers, trapped in a game-world that mixes medievil monsters with hi-tech artistocrats. The opening has Tark stalking a company through a dark forest, confident that the guards he sees protecting the company of travellers are little more than holograms. Instead his attack quickly goes wrong. Turns out the guards are quite real, their swords equally so and instead of the hoped for chest of gold, they are protecting a spoiled princeling named Galbrath. Through a combination of sheer luck and a refined ducking ability, Tark survives the encounter and even makes away with a powerful weapon – a power sword of pure light.

Meanwhile his partner Zyra is engaged on a job of her own, stealing a much-prized ‘key’, to Designer’s Paradise from a rival thiever named The Cracker. The key allows players within the gameworld to escape and can usually only be afforded by the very rich. Tark and Zyra have been stealing gold in order to purchase one, but now they have a key of their own they can leave this dangerous world of treacherous assassins and dragons behind.

Except little do they know, but both thievers have intruded upon the plans of the evil Fat Man. Sending his agents in pursuit of the two, they discover there is no safe place for them to hide, even beyond the borders of Designer’s Paradise.

I was mightily impressed by this book and am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming sequel, Gamer’s Challenge. Yes this is a book for teens, but it does not stint on its own ambitious themes as a result. One aspect I loved was the near religious worship of the Designers, who instilled certain moral laws into the games these characters are trapped in. Tark and Zyra are in love, but the rules prevent them from any physical contact.

The story is quite fast-paced and introduces a series of increasingly outlandish villains and monsters as it progresses. An early stand-out is the ‘rat-mage’, a hivemind of underground tunnel rats who can create convincing illusions. The Fat Man himself is a diabolical force within the game, attempting to corrupt the gameworld to his own designs.

What I most enjoyed about the book is how Ivanoff has presented his readership with ideas and fictional concepts that they are no doubt familiar with due to the gaming industry – but they have perhaps not encountered before in books. Tark and Zyra even speak in the same kind of pidgin Old English familiar to those who have played any of the generic Fantasy RPGs of recent years. The closest comparison to this book in literature that I can think of is Charles Stross’ Glasshouse which was reviewed early on in this blog and dealt with similar material.

Exciting, imaginative and forward-looking, a real treat.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

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