It’s Only a Game

­Bloomsbury YA. Jul. 2024. 352p. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781547613359.
Gr 9 Up–Four friends who play an online game are pulled into a devious plot by a nefarious avatar who threatens to destroy their lives if they don’t play along. Night (Marina), Dread (Andrew), Rock (Rajesh), and Syl (Tamyra)—most of the book uses nicknames based on their game usernames—are touring the Seattle headquarters of Apocalypta, creators of the Darkitect multiplayer online role-playing game, when the company’s founder, Ethan, is murdered. Alone in the building, they find envelopes in his pocket that detail what will happen if they don’t play new levels of Darkitect—levels that require them to complete real-life tasks, including break-ins, research, and interviews with people connected to Ethan. The tight narrative is told from 15-year-old Marina’s point-of-view with flashbacks to her childhood with a mother who isolated and abused her (some of which is harrowing); following a period of being unhoused, she now sleeps in the back office of the restaurant where she works. With hacking and breaking into office buildings, some suspension of disbelief is required, but readers won’t mind because it’s a page-turning thrill ride as Yu slowly reveals who the mysterious, all-knowing game-maker Cíx is and what she wants with the group—particularly Marina. Marina is Chinese American, Dread has pale skin, Syl has dark skin, and Rock is British Indian; there is gay and trans representation.
VERDICT Unputdownable. Readers of thrillers, such as Kathryn Foxfield’s Tag, You’re Dead, will enjoy this debut, as will video game aficionados.

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