Book Review: YOU

YOU, by Austin Grossman, is a novel about video games, growing up with your high school friends, and figuring out what the hell you really want to do with the rest of your life.

Our lead character is Russell, a 28-year-old English major who has wandered through several possible careers with no particular attachment or aptitude for any of them, and at the beginning of the novel he is interviewing with a video game studio. Black Arts, the studio in question, was founded by a couple of his friends from high school; but while Russell was peripherally involved in building the first version of the studio's game engine (as part of a group project back in school), he hasn't been involved for a long time and barely squeaks in as an entry-level designer.

All of Black Arts games follow the same four characters, a pretty standard four-person D&D-style adventuring party including a warrior named Brennan, a thief named Prendar, a wizard named Lorac, and a female warrior named Leira. Starting with a high fantasy series called Realms of Gold, these four characters are then re-purposed and re-used for anything from espionage to science fiction to golf and go-cart games.

The adventuring party roughly mirrors the original four-person group that built the game back in high school: Simon, the enigmatic genius (and wizard), now deceased; Darren, Simon's partner in co-founding Black Arts (and warrior); Lisa, a brilliant programmer in her own right, but disconnected from the world (similar to Leira); and Russell, who seems to me less a thief than someone who just doesn't know what do do with his life.

While the novel follows Russell and the Black Arts team through the development of the next installment in their Realms of Gold series, and through various adventures in the realm of making video games, this really is the story of those four characters: a group of misfits who banded together in high school, then found their own paths after graduation after they discovered they were going to be stuck living in the real world after all. The story makes frequent use of flashbacks to high school, a computer summer camp, college, and other moments which help us learn about how these four grew up together and then grew apart.

I enjoyed this novel immensely (and finished it within 24 hours of purchasing it!), but it had its ups and downs. Much of the story felt a little "dream-like": large parts of the novel either consisted of flashbacks to Russel's past, imagined flashbacks about what Simon or Lisa might have been feeling at the same time, or conversations between Russell and the actual adventurers from the Black Arts games.

In a way, this worked -- a lot of the story took place hacking on games at two in the morning, and I know from personal experience that things do feel a little dream-like during those moments -- but it made up so much of the novel that it lost a bit of its immediacy. Perhaps because of this, Russell felt so detached from the outcome of his company's struggles that it became hard to care much as the reader.

However, all that is really a minor quibble. The story of Black Arts was a lot of fun to read, and offers much to the reader who knows games. It's set in the late 90's, a pretty good time for video games in my opinion, and there are all sorts of great nostalgia references for anyone who grew up playing video games around that time. I also enjoy Grossman's writing style quite a lot, both here and in his superhero novel Soon I Will Be Invincible.

Call it 8/10.