Gamers and action fans of all types will dive straight into the MEEP, a virtual-reality gaming world, thanks to Julia Durango's cinematic storytelling. A touch of romance, constant twists, and a vivid, multidimensional journey through a tricked-out virtual city will keep readers flying through to the breathtaking end. Nixy Bauer is used to her classmates being very, very unhappy to see her. After all, she's a bounty hunter in a virtual-reality gaming world—and she's frequently hired by irritated parents to pull kids out of the mazelike MEEP universe. But when the game's billionaire developer loses track of his own son in the MEEP, Nixy is in for the biggest challenge of her bounty-hunting career. Wyn Salvador isn't some lazy kid looking to escape his homework: Wyn does not want to be found. And he's left behind a suicide note. Nixy takes the job but quickly discovers that Wyn's not hiding—he's being held inside the game against his will. But who is holding him captive, and why? Nixy and Wyn attempt to fight their way out of a mind game unlike any they've encountered, and the battle brings them closer than either could have imagined. But when the whole world is virtual, how can Nixy possibly know if her feelings are real?
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Fake and Real
Virtual reality. An interesting main character. A war in a (sort-of fake) world. S.J. Kincaid's INSIGNIA is similar to THE LEVELLER. I can't help but notice the many parallels between the two books. Both main characters are good at what they do. Tom and Nixy are excellent at tricking people. Tom is good at winning games. Nixy is more of a femme fatale, who is capable of being a retrieval specialist of virtual reality-addicted teeangers. They are intelligent. Nixy herself is willing to do whatever it takes to live another day while Tom would do whatever it takes to win a battle.
MEEP (the virtual reality) takes THE LEVELLER's world by storm. Everyone loves a world where anything can happen. Boys can enact whatever sports fantasy they like. Girls can become anyone they ever want to be. Anything. Can. Happen. The world is absolutely engaging, and Julia Durango does a great job of expressing what is normally the impossible.
But there is also the physical world, the real world. Durango doesn't explain the actual world as well as MEEP, but there is great potential for more expansion and depth. I would love to know what Wyn's father does and how far his influence reaches. The villain of THE LEVELLER does bring up many questions involving morals, and in a way, he is right. What of the politics in this book? What of the sci-fi elements? What of the possible mind control?
Nixy is up for a new challenge. For five thousand dollars (plus a five thousand dollar bonus if she gets Wyn back home in an hour), she will seek Wyn Salvador and drag him back home. But this job isn't all rainbows and sunshines. Once she reaches Wyn, she realizes that he is not suicidal at all. He is being held against his will. Dum, dum, dum...
The conflict is intensive, and even after Nixy gets to Wyn, the tension increases and the stakes rises with each passing chapter. I have to applaud Durango for not missing a step, plot-wise. She uses an addictive conflict, an awesome romance, and intriguing characters to push forward the story. Not for a moment has the book stalled.
The ending is one of the most strangest part of the book. Yes, it closes a lot of plots off. Yes, it leaves potential for a sequel. Yes, questions are answered. But there is this sort of uneasiness in the ending that doesn't belong to a standalone. (Plans for a sequel are apparently murky.)
Overall, THE LEVELLER is a wildly enjoyable novel (and possible standalone). Best for fans of Kincaid's Insignia.
Rating: Four out of Five
“Nixy Bauer, Home in an Hour.”
One needn’t be a gamer to appreciate the fast-paced, adventurous romp presented in this near-future light sci-fi story. However, those who are familiar with concepts like virtual sandbox worlds and light role play are likely to take particular enjoyment in the sense of authenticity this book has to offer.
Phoenix “Nixy” Bauer is the kind of competent, ambitious, takes-no-crap heroine this reader loves to see. With the advantage of parents who happen to be developers for the world’s biggest virtual reality game, she fills a specialized niche—tracking down and extracting the consciousnesses of minors whose parents are fed up with their children’s absence from reality. She has few friends and makes no apologies for her entrepreneurial ways. (Hey, a girl has to pay for college somehow.)
Nixy has her flaws as well. Her inclination toward snap, instinctual judgment leads to misjudgment—not only of situations but of people. And her hard-earned character growth was one of the more gratifying contributors to the story arc.
Durango’s writing style is descriptive, concise, and caters well to the many high-action scenes. The conflict is believable and there is an element of intrigue that steadily unfolds—culminating in a twist that I honestly didn’t see coming. Readers can also look forward to a satisfying and organically developed romance (though it’s not clear whether its Nixy’s first experience with this sort of thing.)
The dialogue is punchy and natural in its handling, if not particularly quotable outside of Nixy’s keen sarcasm. The story is told entirely from her first-person perspective, and using the least annoying present-tense I’ve encountered in a long time. I dare say the immediacy feels especially appropriate for the vast majority of the time she spends in the virtual realm.
Note: In this reader’s mind, the author earns bonus EXP (i.e. experience points) for the spare-yet-explained gamer slang, and the creative cussing substitutions. The content (not to mention the limited, uncomplicated tech concepts) are such that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to most ages and sensitivity levels.
All in all The Leveller is a quick and truly fun read—high-ish stakes, yet not as heavy in the doom-and-gloom department as much of the more recent YA with a speculative bent. Therein lays both its advantage and disadvantage. While the entertainment value is high, I do wish the emotional intensity could have been pushed a bit deeper and the ethical implications of the MEEP explored with more profundity.
The ending feels complete but boarders on abrupt, leaving a number of unanswered questions that may or may not compel a sequel. (Not that I wouldn’t be pleased to see a sequel come out of this, mind you…)