~~MOVED FROM GR~~
Geekomancy (Ree Reyes #1)
I recently had a conversation with a non-native-speaker in which I tried to explain that American phrases are not the sum of their parts, and, in particular, that (a) telling a woman that she "really gets around" does not imply admiration of world travel, and (b) to "put out" doesn't mean "put" plus "out." He complained that speaking with Americans was extremely difficult: they speak fast, use colloquialisms, try to turn every remark into a joke based on some obscure reference or other, and are constantly waiting to throw in The Dreaded Pun. He said he found that the best policy was to smile, nod, and hope that the inexplicable laughter wasn't directed at him. After reading this book, I have gained a new sympathy for his point of view.
Pop culture reference books are always tricky. Gratifying the expectations of those "in the know" while still providing sufficient background for the plebes without explaining--and thereby killing--the joke seems to be about as easy as a drunkard's walk on a tightrope. The best approach I've seen is to keep a clueless character on hand to ask for translations when necessary; for example, in the horror-conventionized Proven Guilty has one guy make all the movie cracks while the others look on in incomprehension. This book, however, is more like Ready Player One: the pop culture is so deeply embedded that ignorant readers are basically just shoved out of the airlock. In this case, even with frequent wikisearches, my bewilderment extended past the pop culture references to incorporate practically the entire plot. Before reading this, I thought I could claim some geek cred. I've seen Princess Bride and Firefly, can spot a Funny Walk at fifty yards, can quote large chunks of LotR (I blame my parents, who nearly named me Eowyn), knew LeVar Burton as Geordie before I saw him on Reading Rainbow (parents again), got started in fanart by trading sketches of Pokemon for cards, and devoured over 100 UF books. Even so, I must have failed out of geekdom without realising it.
So, for the rest of this review, assume that I failed my GSL's and missed every reference and every hilarious joke. Better yet, let's just assume that I have no sense of humour. If you understand geekspeak, move along; this is not the review you're looking for.
The basic plot is rife with potential. Rhiannon "Ree" Reyes is an up-and-coming screenwriter (i.e., currently a barista.) While trying to distract herself from a recent breakup with an insufficiently geeky boyfriend, she encounters a mysterious, lightsaber-wielding, comic-destroying maniac who leads her into a world where artefacts of geekdom are powerful magic weapons. Unfortunately, that's also about the point where the plot peters out for me. I'm a mystery reader by disposition, and this is a world and plot that you just cannot think too hard about or the epic logic fail will bog you down. I read the book on kindle, and I think there were five to ten invasive pop culture references on each tiny kindle page. So that you can judge readability/laughability for yourself, here are some quotes (under the spoilertag):
Since the narration describes the action in terms of these references, it became increasingly difficult to figure out what was happening without constant trips to Google.
I might still have been able to enjoy the ride if the characters, humour, or worldbuilding had buoyed me along. They didn't. I vaguely liked most of the characters that Ree ran into, from her boss Bryan to her female friends. Ree herself was more problematic. Each of Ree's memories is given in the context of the boyfriend of the moment; she can't think of AP Chem without dwelling on the shoulders of her crush of that time; she can't think of movies without obsessing on Jo the Libertarian; she can't hang out with a guy for an hour before she starts thinking possessively and has to remind herself, "Don't get ahead of yourself, now. Thou shall not trampage, okay?" Apparently the only time her life wasn't bracketed and defined by her current boyfriend was the stereotypical geek girl "phase" in college (ye gods) when she "spent two years dating girls to tragically drama-ridden results." The most entertaining fails were when Ree was written as a pair of walking breasts; e.g. when "Ree dug her toes in to stop herself before running into Eastwood's hand breast-first." (If I were walking in the dark, I'd be worried about my hands, shoulders, or chin.) I loved that Ree was quite badass and never played damsel in distress, but I think Underwood just tried too hard to Think Girl. To be fair, it's not just Ree; the whole book centres on these shallow romantic relationships, as if the only thing that matters is lurve.
In terms of story, I'd call this a grade-A Idiot Plot, and most of the worldbuilding is sketchy and depends almost entirely on allusions to geekdom. More problematically, much of the conflict of the plot involved issues that I don't tend to pair with humour. Don't get me wrong; I'm addicted to Mood Whiplash and the way that (gallows-humour) comedy, when interleaved with tragedy, exponentially heightens the impact of both. However, for me, Geekomancy remained a superficial farce, so I did not appreciate the introduction of "suspense" via teen suicide. My major issue is, as Carol points out in her review, that Underwood himself handles these tragedies carelessly.
There were plenty of cute moments--for example, when Ree started telling herself her story in "Choose Your Own Adventure" terms--but they didn't make up for the rest.
Rather like my acquaintance's experiences in conversing with Americans, many of the individual words made sense; it was just the meaning of the entirety that was a bit of a muddle. If you're not up on the wonderful world of Geek and want a book in which the power of story and belief and routine imbue the world with magic, then I suggest trying A Madness of Angels instead, where the protagonist conjures with housecleaner brands and wards with a London Underground oyster card. If, on the other hand, you speak Geek, give it a try. You may be pleasantly surprised to finally find a book that gets your language.