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Released: January 11th 2022
Genre: Sci Fi
“It truly felt like I was immersed in how I imagine people experience an LSD trip.”~ Under the Covers
Was I on some sort of weird trip while reading this book?
Isobel is living in Los Angeles and also happens to be the best of all time in a rave-themed VR game called Sparkle Dungeon. It turns out that her skills in the game make her well-prepared to learn “power morphemes” (super dense units of meaning impact listeners’ experiences and feelings when skillfully pronounced). Her abilities make her a target for recruitment by both a cabal (led by the Governor of California, naturally) and a group of anarchists trying to stop some major consequences for all residents of the state. But there are much weirder enemies showing up intent on destroying Earth and Isobel must figure out how to save the world.
First off, I was a linguistics major during college, so I was so excited to see how concepts from that field would enter into a science fiction novel. Although only loosely grounded in anything resembling linguistic theory, the idea of crazy-dense meaning in power morphemes was interesting to think about. I also enjoyed the mystery of trying to figure out who the enemies (both foreign and domestic) were and what skills they might be able to utilize in this magical world of power morphemes. Many of the characters (shout out especially for the Dauphine!) were fun and pretty well fleshed out.
Now for the weird bits. Sparkle Dungeon is a truly crazy environment that you’re immediately dropped into. Players must beat enemies through diva-casting (shouting/singing spells) and music-based weapons with a goal of getting exclusive records so they can DJ sets to try to get more hit points. Then the game starts to play a major role in the overall plot of the story, with people becoming their avatars and operating in other planes of existence. Those other planes also bring new skills for certain people and interactions with new aliens with their own relationships with power morphemes. It truly felt like I was immersed in how I imagine people experience an LSD trip. Or a Baby Einstein video but made for adults with tons of pop culture references.
There were also some things I didn’t love in this book. Many of the characters were morally gray, which I could appreciate. However, I feel like the characters we’re meant to like the most were also the most 2D and we didn’t get to know them that well. Isobel narrates the story. She focuses very strongly on not assuming any character’s pronouns. While I appreciate this interest in being more aware of others, she was perfectly willing to assume someone’s race (overwhelmingly white for the humans) and internal thoughts and feelings, so the focus on pronouns felt very disingenuous.
Overall, I did enjoy reading this story, or at least having read it. If you liked Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes and are looking for something with a similar vibe but even weirder, then this book is for you. I would also recommend trying it out if you enjoy reading about immersive video games. Fair warning: go into this book willing to suspend your disbelief or maybe skip this read.
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