CM . . . . Volume XV Number 13. . . .February 20, 2009.
War Games. (SideStreets).
Toronto, ON: James Lorimer, 2008.
181 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.) (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55277-035-1 (pbk.)ISBN 978-1-55277-036-8 (hc.).
Computer war games-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 8-10 / Ages 13-15.
Review by Ellen Wu.
Ryan Taber saw the sun glint off the rifle barrel as it slithered out of the second-floor window high above. His heart sped up as he realized this bombed-out building was where the rest of the Nomad fighters were hiding. He reloaded his weapon as he paused to plan his next move, and then kicked open the charred wooden door.
Noob--You suck! That's a fatal error, and now you're going to pay with your ass!
The taunting words appeared in the personal message box in the bottom left corner of Ryan's computer screen. As if, he thought, his eyes sweeping the scene for concealed Nomads. Nothing.
Then a hail of bullets rained down. He watched numbly as his avatar crumpled to the ground.
"Oh man!" Ryan groaned. "I was two kills from an Executioner rating."
The guy sitting at the next terminal looked over, assessing the carnage on Ryan's screen. "Let's see, that would mean right now you're a Lethal Hunter, and any Desert Death gamer with those stats ought to know better than to walk into an obvious ambush. You should have 'naded that top floor window and waited for the targets to bail out the front door. You could have registered a dozen kills." He nodded at the image. "From that slaughter, I'd say you made a real rookie mistake."
Fifteen year-old Ryan Taber is a military base kid whose exacting and brusque father is leaving for service in Afghanistan. Ryan, however, prefers playing video games such as Desert Death to hearing his father talk about his mission with the ISAF (the International Security Assistance Fund). Tired of being under the thumb of his strict father Jason, and disregarding his shy, mousy mom, Ryan embarks on a double life in his father's absence. He finds an opportunity to rebel and live the fast life with an older boy, Casey Ardmore, one of the most advanced gamers around, the notorious HackNSlash, whose show-no-mercy killing strategies in his gaming life impress Ryan. Not only does he look up to the boy because of his superior gaming abilities, but Casey represents
everything that Ryan wants: defiance toward authority, independence, nonchalant risk-taking, not to mention a sleek Mercedes and the latest Blackberry in his hip pocket. Ryan even helps out with Casey's errands of delivering money from betting from one location to the other. Though Casey seems to be in trouble with some thugs, Ryan has complete trust in his mentor and begins to adopt his rebel-without-a-cause attitude.
Meanwhile, Ryan's second half of his double life is led in compliance to his dad's strict instructions: he goes swimming, a sport that gives him confidence, and at school he meets Chantal, a girl who moved from another base, and he tries to impress her with his new rebellious lifestyle. Even as he joins a local swim team and forms healthier friendships with his teammates there, the allure of Casey's seemingly glamorous existence is stronger. Each decision he makes in favour of the life of supposed freedom leads him into more trouble, and he gets suspended from school for smoking and disrespecting a teacher and receives threats from goons who are after Casey for money.
This fast-paced story, told in a close third-person point of view, follows Ryan as he spirals toward self-destruction, for his rebellion begins to have consequences on all the major relationships with his life. Alongside Ryan's story are his father's e-mails from Afghanistan, which start off as
brisk and businesslike, full of determination to make a difference there, and unravel to reveal distress at the suffering of comrades, suicide bomber attacks, and a troubled conscience that can no longer see the war in black and white terms. Ryan's views on war, which he sees as a source
of excitement, removed from grim sociopolitical realities, are further challenged by Chantal, who begins a group at school calling for the return of Canada's troops from Afghanistan. When Ryan suggests a nuclear strike to end the 'dark ages' of Taliban and Al-Qaeda rule in Afghanistan, he
loses the respect of Chantal forever. Ryan's father returns home early, a shadow of his former self and traumatized by his experiences, but for Ryan, his father's apathy gives him further rein to continue his double life.
Ryan's two worlds collide when he invites Casey to come to the pool with him, and he witnesses Casey Ardmore assault a member of his swim team in the water. Casey threatens to blackmail him, revealing that Ryan has been helping run drug money on his 'errands' for him, thereby forcing Ryan to lie to police about the true perpetrator of the assault. Betrayed by Casey, Ryan turns for help from the source he shunned and held in contempt all along, his parents, and learns the true reason why his father returned early from his assignment. Only then does he begin to take
responsibility for his actions and take the first step toward redemption and realize that war is no game, but rather is about "living people fighting and dying for what they believe in."
Jacqueline Guest, who dedicates War Games to the families and loved ones of Canadian military personnel, does an admirable job portraying the life of a military base teenager for whom the war in Afghanistan is brought not just close to home but into every aspect of one's daily life. While at times the teen-speak can sound stilted, and Ryan's change of heart toward war and deference to parental authority perhaps too sudden to be altogether plausible, the sullen bravado and toughness of Ryan are presented with honesty and grit. War Games should appeal to its intended audience of teenaged boys and also provoke them to consider questions about the ethics and motivations of war abroad, as well as the equally important matter of learning to grapple with the complexities of familial relationships at home.
Ellen Wu is currently a MFA student in Hollins University, and intends to pursue a degree in library sciences at the University of British Columbia in the fall.
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