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Book Review: User Unfriendly by Vivian Vande Velde

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My son has developed a keen interest in Dungeons and Dragons role playing games and virtual reality gaming. The former takes a lot of other players and a lot of time, which prohibits us playing. The latter will probably exist in his lifetime, but it’s not here yet. He’s impatient because he wants it now, though, so he asked me lots of questions of what it would be like to be inside a game.

I’d read the Vivian Vande Velde’s YA novel, Heir Apparent, and really enjoyed it. It was about a young girl that got trapped in a video game. So I decided to order it for him. While looking at the author’s titles, I also spotted User Unfriendly. The cover is cool, showcasing a young elven boy in a dungeon with other people behind him. I could tell at a glance that this book was about a dungeon crawl, one of those role playing game adventures chock full of action. So I purchased it as well.

When the books arrived, I’d intended to read Heir Apparent. But when my son saw the cover to User Unfriendly, he wanted to read that one first. So we dug in.

The book is 244 pages long. That we read it in four days is testimony to my son’s interest as well as my voice. Two nights we read for over two hours. I have to admit, I was looking for places to put the book down for the evening, but the author simply doesn’t give the reader a break in this one. There is action and mysteries and puzzles all the way through. I was just as caught up in events as my son, thinking I’d read just one more chapter.

The book falls short on character development because the reader doesn’t get a clear sense of who the characters are in the real world. They’re delineated in the fiction just enough to distinguish them and give a sense of purpose, but you don’t get much more than that. Of course, you don’t really need much more in a book like this. I wasn’t overly concerned about who they were the real world because I was having a blast in the RPG one.

Velde writes young characters well. The dialogue feels real, brimming with humor and sarcasm at times. There are even a couple of character twists that I didn’t expect that were fun. Since the story's game is a pirated copy and the players are illegally in the virtual, there is some tension in the book regarding whether or not they will get caught and kicked out. The game also has some problems that creates further conflict for them.

Their main goal is to rescue a captured princess, but the driving pressure for Arvin and his friends is his mother’s steadily increasing illness. After a bit they figure out that she must have something wrong with her in the real world that’s causing her problems in the virtual one. This added element of desperation is really cool and compounds all mysteries they encounter while in the game.

User Unfriendly is a great book for reluctant young, male readers. If you can get a boy to read even the first chapter, I bet you’ll have him hooked till the end.

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