Tyler MacCandless can’t focus, even when he takes his medication. Just when it seems like his future is on a collision course with a life sentence at McDonald’s, his mentor Rick asks him to test a video game. If his score’s high enough, it could earn him a place in flight school and win him the future he was certain that he could never have. And when he falls in love with the game’s designer, the legendary gamer Ani, Tyler thinks his life might finally be turning around.
That is, until Tyler and Ani discover that the game is more than it seems. Now Tyler will have to figure out what’s really going on to prevent his own future from going down in flames..
I’m not the biggest fan of young adult books – I find some of the plot lines simplified and often an ordinary teenager inexplicably holds the key to salvation but Playing Tyler is different and refreshingly so. It starts strong with a scene of what we all would have liked to do at school – telling the teacher to stick it – and finishes even stronger with a politically aware and thrilling climax. Crucially it has reinvigorated my interest in the genre.
Tyler’s ADHD is well handled with incidental detail piling up to show his fractured mind – his constant observations aping the physical tics of an ADHD sufferer. Costa’s extraordinary characterisation handles the exhausting nature of ADHD well. It can be at times a welcome relief for Ani’s logical voice to take over from Tyler’s erratic one – this might be a sticking point for some, but I’d urge you to keep reading.
Tyler’s focus to keep him sane is computer games and his desire to become a pilot – and this is what forms the key plot of Playing Tyler. When Tyler’s father figure and Civilian Air Patrol Mentor Rick offers him the chance to test a new simulation program, Tyler jumps at it – especially when he meets the system’s designer – the revered gamer ‘SlayerGrrl’, known in the real world as Ani.
It’s an unconventional love story that springs up – Ani perhaps isn’t pretty to Tyler’s eyes, but she’s a ‘goddess’ when setting up the game. Costa’s alternating narrative allows us inside both Tyler and Ani’s heads seeing what each thinks of the other – making for some amusing moments – Tyler is hilariously lousy at chatting Ani up. Both their insecurities are captured in a playful way that feels like real puppy love. Both are also juggling secrets from the other, his older brother is in rehab for heroin abuse and hers is something entirely more dangerous.
The love story is contrasted against something very political and very serious as the second half of the story kicks into gear. It’s difficult to talk about it in detail without spoiling the book, but needless to say, the simulation isn’t just a game. Costa’s text oozes tension off the page with the growing sense of dread that things aren’t quite right.
The hi-tech thrilling finale is exciting as the mysterious Mr. Anderson begins to guess every move Tyler and Ani make. It also discusses ideas such as patriotism, and online gaming in a non-patronising and engaging way. There are some serious questions posed about the ethics of warfare heading up by some believable characters with genuine flaws.
What might seem astonishing to some is that these subjects are being tackled by a female writer, Costa’s voice being a confident and engaging one that has something to say. If you enjoyed War Games or Ready Player One and are looking for a bold new take on these that won’t let you look at Call of Duty in the same way again, or need a refreshing take on the young adult genre, I’d thoroughly recommended Playing Tyler.
The Fiction Stroker gives Playing Tyler four strokes out of five:
Playing Tyler is available now from Amazon here.