So…this was an odd one.
Höst is one of my favourite authors in all the world; she’s entirely self-published (except for the Book Smugglers editions of her Touchstone trilogy, copies of which I want so bad), so she’s criminally under-known. I’m pretty sure I stumbled across her via a Book Smugglers review; otherwise, I might never have discovered her, and that would have been a tragedy. I strongly urge you to go and snatch up her books, especially Touchstone, Medair, and All the Stars.
(Pyramids of London is also a fave of mine, but it’s probably not the best place to start. Unless you’re addicted to heavy worldbuilding, like me!)
The Starfighter Invitation is a book I would not have read if it had been written by anyone else; I have no interest in gaming, except as a social phenomenon, so a book that is literally just about playing one? Not my thing. But it was Höst, so I did read it, and I’m happy to say it blasts Ready Player One out of the water.
(Not that that’s a high bar…)
Starfighter functions a lot like a slow-paced, futuristic sci-fi – it actually reminded me of the Wayfarer books in tone, with that same kind of pleasantly lazy, low-stakes, just-enjoy-yourself feel – given that the vast majority of the book takes place inside The Game, where players must master the use of lan (think of something like soul-energy crossed with will, resulting in something similar to telekenesis) to earn their own spaceship and explore the galaxy. The conceit of the game is that it’s set in the future of our world, when most of Earth was drowned by unnamed perpetrators (finding out who they are is, in fact, another of the game’s goals) and humanity has now been ‘claimed’, more or less, by cycorgs, AIs that appear as glowing balls of light. Far from any kind of dystopia, what’s resulted is very much a utopian symbiotic relationship – basically all human suffering has been erased, and humans use their lan to assist cycorgs move through space (cycorgs having none of their own and lan being necessary for long-distance space-travel).
Taia, our main character, enters this world as a player, aware that none of it’s real but delighting in it anyway. The groundbreaking technology of the game’s virtual reality means one hour of real-world time equates to five in-game hours, allowing for practically unlimited access to the wonders of space-travel and the thousands of different games inside the Game. There’s something for everyone – you can compete to be the first to unlock the cycorg’s secrets, or you can go play magic school, or spend a day being a cat. There’s no driving force or overarching plot to the Game – everyone can do as they please. Taia, though, is determined to reach space, and devotes most of her time to that, alongside working to get answers out of Dio, the cycorg she ‘belongs’ to.
The Game is, of course, controversial, and it was a lot of fun to follow the players speculate whether this could possibly be seriously advanced, top-secret modern tech, or if it had been provided by aliens or time-travel. I also liked that one of Taia’s immediate concerns was that, capitalism being what it is, corporations would try to take advantage of the new tech to get more work out of their employees – put on one of the virtual reality cowls, and your 8-hour workday suddenly becomes a 40 hour one! – and the various, quiet explorations of the ramifications the technology had for different kinds of people. Players generally aren’t all that impressed to find that they ‘belong’ to AIs now, even in a game, either! Even if the cycorgs are really just human employees somewhere, when they’re not running on NPC mode…
Höst generally avoids writing ‘chosen one’ types, and Taia is not a rising star with her lan or the various game challenges. She reads and feels like a completely normal teenager; not the first to break new ground in the Game, nor the first to unlock new rewards or ‘levels’ – not even in the first wave of top-level players. She’s…normal, which is not to say boring – she has an intense curiosity that was perfect for conveying this particular setting, she’s thoughtful, stubborn, and has a capacity for wonder that humbled me; I’d very much like to be friends, if she were real! But being normal makes her relatable in a way the super-talented, chosen-one-type characters generally aren’t – I ached for her flash of vicious jealousy when she discovered that a particular person had beaten her lan level despite having started much later, and she’s honest with herself about those feelings. I think we’ve all been there – we all have something we love dearly, which makes us envious or jealous of those who are better at the thing even though they don’t love it. It was definitely one of the moments that made Taia feel most real to me.
I never see Höst’s twists and turns coming, but this ending in particular seemed to strike completely out of the left field. I think it speaks well of the book, though, that it left me feeling genuinely shaken and upset – not with the book; it’s not a bad ending, or a bad book. More that the upsetting thing is meant to be upsetting, and it succeeds. But I have to admit that part of that might be the shock-factor. I get so immersed in a story that I rarely see even the most predictable plot-twists coming, but even in hindsight it doesn’t feel like there were enough clues leading to the ‘big reveal’. On the other hand, within the story’s conceit, that’s deliberate – although there are tiny, easily-misinterpreted hints here and there, the players (and, thus, the reader) aren’t supposed to figure out the Big Secret before it’s revealed.
So it’s a twisty one, and it’s left me with plenty to think about re: storytelling techniques and how some typical writerly no-nos can be entirely justified within a particular story’s context. I will, of course, be snatching up the sequel when it’s ready, but I will be doing so gingerly. I suspect an emotionally turbulent beginning to book 2!