Sunday, April 17, 2016


Suspense thriller writers walk a fine line as they navigate their characters through potentially world-shattering events -- even when they've saved the day, there may still be significant consequences to the baddie's thwarted plot. The world in which our heroes have saved the day can start to diverge from the one in which we live, adding a degree of difficulty to maintaining plausibility and reader interest. Over the course of three novels, Mike Maden's Troy Pearce has been fighting that battle as well as the ones that threaten his country.

By 2015's Drone Command, the gap is widening at the same time that the novels are becoming less and less interesting. The first novel in the series offered several members of Pearce's team, deployed for private intelligence operations along with the high-tech unmanned vehicles of the title. But the follow-up starting trimming the cast and Command pares it down some more, tightening the focus on Pearce and his unofficial partner, former U.S. President Margaret Myers. Confrontation between Japan and China threatens to become full-out war, but the current president has sent Pearce and Myers into the mix with a plan to defuse the situation and covertly take out the Chinese technological edge that makes the situation so dangerous. But the stakes may be high enough that the players will risk the diplomatic disaster that would follow harm to Pearce or Myers.

Command dials back the he-man grunt-grunt overload that hobbled Blue Warrior, the second novel in the series. But it adds in plenty of character speeches that tell us exactly what author Maden thinks is wrong with the world today, as well as the backstory that tells us how Troy came to be the fellow he is today. Agree or not with the first, they drag the pace to a crawl too many times. And while the second could definitely have its place, there's nothing about the main storyline of Command that connects to it. Those problems, combined with mostly cameo roles for the rest of Pearce's team and a distinct dearth of actual drones, push Drone Command a lot closer to other meanings of the word -- like "a monotonous low humming sound," emphasis on the "monotonous."
Ernest Cline's 2011 debut, Ready Player One, sold as a movie the same day he finalized his publishing contract. A unique setting, elements of the hot trend of teen dystopic fiction and painstakingly detailed '80s pop culture nostalgia intrigued publishers and movie studios alike. Cline's reputation in gaming and nerd culture also helped generate significant buzz for his story of a young man in an impoverished mid-21st century United States who takes on the world's greatest secret and treasure hunt.

Wade Watts lives on the outskirts of Oklahoma City in a trailer park "stack" that's not too many steps above homelessness. The virtual reality OASIS provides his schooling and socialization, but his approaching graduation is going to dump him into a real world where no sensible person would want to say. But there's a chance for escape: Solve the mystery of the OASIS creator's hidden "Easter Egg" and gain control of his fortune and OASIS itself. Wade is one of the serious remaining Easter Egg hunters or "gunters," and when one day he uncovers a clue that starts him on a legitimate trail for the prize, his future might become a whole lot brighter. If he has one, that is. Because the real-world implications of controlling OASIS and its creator's fortune mean some folks will play a much more permanent game to gain them.

Cline has a great handle on the world of early computer gaming, in which well-designed text-based "y/n" adventures might hold as honored a place as the finest 8-bit graphics at the arcade. He also writes the in-narrative game adventures in styles that match their various atmospheres while never entirely abandoning the "real-world" voice of Wade and his friends. But his story really spends too much time on its gaming and nostalgia dimensions, robbing it of focus. It also front-loads the character development and world-building, meaning that once the Hunt starts in earnest, the gaming dimension begins to smother the story.

Cline has a couple of interesting things to say about what might happen in a world where virtual reality becomes cheap and easy for anyone to access. But the fuzziness of his story and over-indulgence of his gaming jones mean it's tough to pick them out of the background noise.

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