With a gamer for a dad, we grew up always having computer and video games around the house. I cut my baby teeth on the Sega Genesis (and totally dominated at Sonic 2 and The Lion King), graduated to the Playstation, and fell in love with the GameCube. At various times, my brother, father, and I have simultaneously played computer games like Morrowind, City of Heroes, and of course, World of Warcraft. I play a mean Pikachu and Toon Link in Super Smash Bros.: Brawl, and can still remember the first time my friend R and I beat final boss Master Hand in the original Super Smash Bros.
So as a lifelong fan of video games, I was looking forward to picking up Erebos, by Ursula Poznanski. Erebos is the story of high school student Nick who notices some funny things going on at his school–his friend Colin becomes withdrawn and no longer answers his texts or comes to basketball practice, other students are consistently absent, and some people are secretively passing around a CD. After finally getting his hands on one, Nick enters the immersive computer game world of Erebos, where the graphics are amazing, the music is almost hypnotic, and the game reacts to you almost like a living, learning creature. Nick gets further and further sucked into the game, even as the game’s quests get creepier. Can Nick and his friends figure out exactly what–or who–Erebos is, before it’s too late?
Erebos is a fun, lightning-quick read. I imagine it would be especially good for young gamers, who might be able to see themselves in Nick. Poznanski does a great job illustrating just how seductive the world of Erebos is, and convincingly depicts what appears like addiction. (Students who are kicked out of Erebos, for example, become desperate, pleading, with some withdrawal-like symptoms.) We can easily follow the changes in Nick’s personality the longer he plays Erebos, and see how concerned his friends become the further he draws away from them. It was quite realistic, and Poznanski deserves kudos for approaching the subject carefully.
Young gamers will also enjoy the lengthy descriptions of happenings in Erebos, which do begin to feel very real. Nick’s interactions with other players, as well as his frustration at failing missions or his exaltation at winning duels will be familiar to any gamer. The world of Erebos was rich, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that part of me wanted to explore it, too! Finally, the tension and fear surrounding the game–how does it know what your real name is, for example?–are also well-done. I raced through the book because I was so invested in figuring out these mysteries alongside Nick. While the resolution is somewhat easy to figure out, once one of the central mysteries has been revealed to the reader, it still is a heckuva ride.
A couple things kept this from being a five star book for me, though, the first being that I’m unsure if Poznanski has very much actual gaming experience. It wasn’t even that the mysterious game’s set-up bothered me–it was the logistics. For example, Erebos contains an arena where players can challenge one another to fights. But a non-player character (NPC) calls each player by name, one by one, and everyone else waits as the called player fights their challenger. So you’ve got a crowd of around 150 people watching two people fight at a time. The amount of time this would take–and the amount of griping from players–would be unbearable. (Additionally, the fact that no enterprising player tried to hack the game or make mods was hard to ignore, and we are even introduced to a hardcore gamer!)
The more worrisome issue I had with Erebos was its hard treatment of women and minorities. At one point, someone is described as being half-Asian, but the context implies this is a bad thing–something like, “She likes guys like that? Glasses, half-Asian,” etc. Someone else is described as smelling “oriental,” which is both bizarre and politically incorrect. Nick is also incredibly mean-spirited towards a girl who has a crush on him, judging her by her looks, the way she dresses, and her straightforwardness. The implication is that the boy should be pursuing the girl, not the other way around. Overall, the handling of women and people of color is incredibly regressive, and while I don’t think it was intentional, I was still somewhat taken aback. However, I do applaud Poznanski for her inclusion of multicultural characters. Nick’s friend Colin, for example, is black, and there are minor several Middle Eastern characters. Were I to give this to a younger reader, though, I would make sure to discuss these points with them after they had finished the book.
Erebos‘s strengths are its depictions of gaming addiction, the many intertwined mysteries surrounding the game, and the well-drawn world of Erebos itself. I think young male readers would especially relate to POV character Nick. In many respects, he’s a normal high schooler, with different demands on his time, trying to juggle school, friends, and fun; watching him become a hero is great. Make sure, however, that young readers understand why its judgement of women and people of color is overly harsh.
I received Erebos for review through NetGalley. It was published January 19, 2012 here in the U.S.; it was already a bestseller in Germany.
Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half stars