I got an email a few months ago from a gentleman of whom I was not familiar, one Scott Fitzgerald Gray, who asked if I would mind reviewing his new YA novel. He also requested a guest blog post. His credentials were good (more on those in a moment), and I agreed. Unfortunately Scott had some things come up and had to postpone the blog tour. Hopefully that will happen soon. He’d be welcome to write a guest post here anytime he likes.
Scott is a member of the Monumental Works Group, a collective of sf/fantasy writers that includes Ty Johnston. (reviewed here, guest post here). I’m familiar with Ty and his work, so I agreed to his request. After reading We Can Be Heroes, all I can say is, if Johnston and Gray are representative of the Monumental Works Group, I’m going to have to check the work of other members. These guys can write.
I had a bazillion things going on while I read this book and wasn’t able to read it every day. In fact, it took me two weeks to finish it, which is a looong time for me to finish a book of this length. The fact that I didn’t get bored and move on to something else speaks to how compelling I found the writing. This review would probably fit better at Futures Past and Present, but this blog gets more traffic, so I’m going to post it here.
I was expecting a good book, but this one exceeded my expectations. Here’s why:
The setup concerns a group of five high school students in Canada. They live in an isolated little town in British Columbia, and they’re about a month away from graduating. The previous year, the five of them won a national gaming competition. Things haven’t gone well for all of them since then. Gray reveals the backstory gradually, so I’ll not spoil anything for you.
The story is told by Scott, a flawed and not necessarily reliable narrator. Gray gives him a unique voice, which was part of the appeal of book. Scott writes essays for conspiracy theory websites. He’s something of an amateur philosopher. This is a good thing, because there are some pretty serious themes in the book. The discussions Scott has within himself and with his friends add a level of gravitas to the book that’s usually found only in works for more mature readers.
One of the members of the group gets an email invitation to beta test a new game, with a substantial cash prize to the first team to successfully complete the objectives and win the game. The group signs on, Scott reluctantly. Of course, the first thing they need to do is bring Molly back into the group. She’s Scott’s estranged girlfriend.
Lest you think this is going to be one of those angst filled novels of unrequited teenage love, relax. While there is some of that, Gray handles it well, never allowing it to overshadow the main story. Instead he uses the relationships among the teens to develop their characters to a depth not always seen in YA novels and to strengthen the plot.
The plot of the game involves the group capturing an advanced mobile weapons platform, essentially a flying tank, from a secured facility without having any weapons, at least not initially. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there’s a lot more going on here than they realize. By the time they finish the game they will be over their heads in a covert operation.
The pace is renlentless, the suspense intense at times, and the plot complex and twisting. From a small town to s secret bunker to the streets of Vancouver, the reader is swept along a roller coaster ride, in more than one sense.
I mentioned earlier that the characterization shows a depth not often seen in YA novels. Here’s a quote from near the end of the book as Scott reflects on what’s happened:
Sometimes there are no villains. There are no heroes. There are just people doing whatever people need to do to deal with the things life throws at them.
That’s a good description of almost everyone in the book. Even the “villains” are (mostly) good. They just have different ideas about the best way to deal with the situation. Gray does an outstanding job of making his characters seem real. Maybe it’s a side effect of not being able to finish the book in a couple of days as I usually can, but I hated to finish it. I really liked these people. The author made them seem real.
This was a highly satisfying novel. If you’ve ever been a gamer, enjoyed a thriller, or been in love, there will be something in this book for you.
We Can Be Heroes is a featured book at Adventures Fantastic Books.