Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Book Review: "Armada" By Ernest Cline (2015)

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I can't say I know of many people who haven't come out of Ernest Cline's first novel, "Ready Player One" with less than sheer enthusiasm. It managed to be both relatable (in the sense of the main characters, their actions and motivations, etc.) and fun/exciting all at once. I read a quote, describing the book as "Willy Wonka meets The Matrix," and I'd have to say I agree with that statement. Cline's next novel, "Armada" is now out for all to jump into, but does it live up to the hype of its predecessor? Strap yourselves in folks; this is going to be a bumpy ride.

"Armada" stars another young boy, named Zack Lightman. Zack is a gamer (like his father before him), who starts seeing spaceships in the sky, thinking he's gone completely insane as a result. As if dealing with school bullies and his widowed mother wasn't enough, Zack also has to fight with conflicting feelings as he tries to convince himself not to believe what he is seeing. He frequents a game called "Armada," in which he is currently ranked #6 in the world. The skills Zack displays in this game eventually lead to a sequence where he is asked to join a Federation, in order to use his abilities to aid in protecting the planet from an oncoming invasion.

If bits of this sound like "Ender's Game" or "The Last Starfighter" to you, that's because it's more or less supposed to. Cline makes no hesitation to list his inspirations throughout the story, and they make plenty of sense in context. Here's where things are also about to get a bit rocky however. If you've read the stories that Cline mentions throughout the book, then you're likely going to end up a bit disappointed by the lack of actual surprises in the plot. Every time I had hoped I was going to be wrong about a direction the book was taking, it ended up going exactly as I had predicted. Others may go for this type of set up, but as someone who's already read and watched way too much science fiction in my day (which seems to be the target demographic for this book anyway), I was hoping for a little more than I actually got.

That's not to say this is a bad read by any means, but after the success of "Ready Player One," I thought we'd be able to hold Cline's writing to higher standards by this point. It turns out, this second book actually should have been proofread a few more times, as the writing style/grammar was a bit off-putting in places. Cline throws in all kinds of references to media of the past (just like in "Ready Player One" once again), but unlike the author's first novel, the use of these references feels much more forced this time. It's a shame too, since this was one of the factors I loved the most in "Ready Player One." While I'm glad the author still likes to throw these into the pot, it just doesn't prove to be purposeful or relevant in any way this time around.

The characters are mostly likable on their own (especially the crew that Zack later teams up with), but none of them get any real time to develop beyond a few small conversations. I had read through about 3/4 of the book, beginning to wonder why more wasn't really happening by that point.

Unfortunately, pacing is another big issue I had with this title. While it's great to be very descriptive of your environment and sciences (Isaac Asimov was brilliant at this concept for example), things just didn't seem to come together very well here. The dynamic and the events themselves all seemed to simply "happen" for no real reason or significance. I hate to say that the ending (without going into spoilers) didn't really add much to the story either, other than giving us the notion that there could be more to come someday.

Perhaps it's the concept of the book itself that disappointed me the most. It's not a unique concept by any means. It's been done before multiple times, and better in many cases. This simply did not live up to the hype of predecessor. While it is still an enjoyable read and a great way to spend a couple of lazy afternoons, it won't make you want to jump for joy like "Ready Player One" did. This does not sway my positive opinion of the author in any way however, and I will happily read more as Cline decides to write it.

While most people aren't likely to assume "Armada" would be a better story than "Ready Player One" before reading it, I think they are also going to come out with some sense of disappointment here. It really doesn't have enough ground to stand on its own, besides the author's name. Do yourselves a favor: Read "Ready Player One," as it is truly an incredible debut novel and ode to geek culture of all types. Only give this one a shot afterward, if you desperately feel the need (like I did). You'll be glad you read it once, but you likely won't see much to come back to a second time around.

6.5 Out Of 10

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