Vivian Vande Velde
Magic Carpet Books, Harcourt, Inc., 2002
A young adult science fiction and fantasy novel, and a good one. While perhaps not destined to be a classic, this is a great book for the young SF/F fan -- and it is truly a SF/F book, containing both a convincing future and an exciting sword-and-sorcery tale.
In the not-too-distant future, buses drive themselves and carefully advise their passengers about the best stops, whether the passengers are interested or not. Trendy youth wear mood-sensing clothing and miniature shoulder dragons, which may or may not be house-trained. And those teenagers who can afford it enjoy the full-immersion adventures that can only be found by merging your nervous system with a supercomputer. Heir Apparent is the story of a computer game gone wrong.
Fourteen-year-old Giannine Bellisario is generally disenchanted with the future, with the sole exception of the full-immersion computer games. She isn't one one of those who spend all of their free time in virtual reality, but she certainly recognizes the draw of a good adventure. So she decides to try out a new offering at the local Gaming Center; Heir Apparent, a game of knights and kings, scheming plots and assassinations, wizards and dragons. Which is interesting enough, but it gets much more exciting when the game breaks.
And then, we leave the science fiction story and enter a fantasy story. Giannine has her brain welded into the Middle Ages, having to live the life of a poor peasant girl who finds that she is in fact the heir to the throne. It is a hard life, and many of those around her want to end it early -- so they do. This is still a computer game, so when she dies she is simply sent back to the beginning to try again... and again, and again, and again. She has only one brief message from the outer world; if she stays in the game too long, she will die. The only way out is to win the game. And she doesn't know how long is too long.
This makes for an interesting story; she lives the same couple of days over and over again, each time with minor changes. She learns a number of tricks and secrets of the game, but none of them obviously lead to victory, and most of them take disturbingly long to play through. The game is very much reminiscent of a traditional computer game with familiar puzzles and plot chunks, but it is also a well-developed fantasy world, with well-rounded characters and numerous plots and sub-plots, schemes and problems that are worthy of any more traditional fantasy world.
As a book for 10- 15-year-olds, there is very little to critique about this book. It is a great read, and manages to avoid the obvious trap of becoming repetitious. It is just a bit girly, but not enough, I think, to make it a disappointment to male readers. There is a strong and rather redundant theme of Giannine's feelings of abandonment towards her father, but while this stands out, it is not overwhelming. It is worth noting that the bulk of the book is set in the fantasy world, and the parts of the story set in the future, while well-written and interesting, are probably not enough to satisfy someone who has a strong preference for science fiction.
All in all, I highly recommend this book to YA fiction fans, and I suspect that if you are a fan of Patricia C. Wrede or Diana Wynne Jones, you will like this book. Unfortunately, I have not yet read any of Vivian Vande Velde's other books, and can't say how it compares, but it is certainly good enough to convince me to seek out more of her books in the future.