I honestly never thought I'd give a book a single star but here I am. I give this book a single star because I hated every. single. character in this book, and any appearance of potential that glimmers in this book is quickly expunged. Oftentimes I feel like I'm forced to give two stars because I can see something that could have been made out of it, but in this case I have absolutely nothing. I physically clawed at this book because it infuriated me that much. There were times I actually wanted to tear it apart because it was so teeth-grindingly annoying.
Ted with his Holden Caulfield level perpetual judginess. Having read a lot of children's books recently, I do have to say I am somewhat baffled at adults being unable to write children who aren't infuriating to read as adults but Ted really stands as a shining example of a character archetype I hate. He is the most best at the thing! He has hidden potential! He never has to use a walkthrough because he's so amazing and awesome and perfect but not at reading as is made unendingly, perpetually clear with his interaction with Isabel but it's okay because he's the hero and he's so smart at the thing! He's smart at the video game that requires smarts and not shooty things because he's different and smart! Smarter even than his sister who goes to Harvard, so says his own mother apparently! An emotional conflict that could be interesting if it's handled remotely with any sort of depth or understanding beyond a lip service to "I feel bad because she set a standard my parents don't feel I can reach and it's terrible woe is me." No feelings of "she is my sister and I love her and these feelings of inadequacy are unfun but unavoidable". No, nothing as interesting as that. And as he treats Isabel like some sort of freak alien who doesn't understand games, he sits there pettily grieving over her snobbiness over books.
And let's TALK about Isabel, shall we? I have read another video game themed book this year, the [b: Memory Wall|7696504|Memory Wall|Anthony Doerr|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327935430s/7696504.jpg|10379359] by Rosen which I liked infinitely better, and one of the things I liked about it was that it introduced female characters that weren't totally ignorant to the topic of video games - an aspect I rather enjoy being a woman who has loved video games for a very, very long time. Considering that Isabel is the ONLY girl in this book, and of ALL the THREE FEMALE CHARACTERS OF THIS BOOK, she is forced to be the representative of her gender. And I simply won't take excuses for this. If claiming that just because Isabel doesn't like games doesn't mean that girls as a whole don't is a weak argument when there are zero other girls interacted with, and no where is it mentioned that Isabel might not be a singular case. She's a miserable girl stereotype, weird cleanliness and bookishness and all. None of her quirks explained, just a stereotype through and through. At the very end of the book we get a sentence about her backstory, her life in her previous school - and that is ALL????????? I got to that sentence in the epilogue and I was furious. This book repeatedly acts like talking briefly about a difficult THING is the same thing as depth and it just goddamn isn't. And nothing about Ted's initial assessment about Isabel turns out to be incorrect with is just the worst, most lazy writing
, and I hated it
because not only did her character not prove to be more interesting than she presented herself to be, which is how usually this happens, it means that Ted was right again because he's so smart and apparently likes to analyze people! Was I supposed to grow affectionate to her incessant "look at me" quoting? Was I supposed to be impressed by her ability to remember a Bible passage? The thing is, YES, I was, and yet I know that the author most likely had to look it up to make his character look smart for stupid fake reasons.
There's little be said for Caleb. He's sidekick model Type 23, and like most characters in this book, gets his little lip-service to "life sometimes has difficult things" in regards to his father's divorce that is then hardly ever brought up nor used as a part of his character. A character to have some funny quips and stand in perpetual awe of the main character and be his best friend, a la Ron Weasley and also every single most boring archetype sidekick ever in the history of ever.
Ted's parents are also pretty awful. In-universe they're just terrible parents, who condescend and talk down to their own child. As characters in a book, they're not dissimilar in places to Isabel, especially the father, who apparently thinks its okay to criticize his wife for her preferred reading. At no point does anyone call him out for the elitist BS it is. As a bookseller? As a person? As someone who listens to what everyone reads, people who judge other people for the type of books they read (OR, one of my bigger pet peeves is readers acting snobby at people who don't like/enjoy/can't read for pleasure which, you're in luck, there's also plenty of THAT in this book) can honestly just shut the hell up, and that's exactly what I was yelling at this book whenever he opened his mouth.
Speaking of which, this book is incredibly elitist. It only takes the best of the best, and doesn't seem aware of its own faults in that respect. There's just absolutely no middle ground in this book, and when it grounds itself in OUR reality with OUR history, I'm afraid it just doesn't slide. There's no learning from mistakes and because of that, there's no growth
. The book ultimately ends with nothing having changed fundamentally. No one is older, more knowledgeable, more experienced. They solved the puzzle but whatever, we knew Ted would, because he can SOLVE ALL THE PUZZLES THE BEST AND THE MOST FASTEST BECAUSE HE'S THE MOST AMAZING.