CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 27. . . .March 24, 2017
Ian Donald Keeling.
Peterborough, ON: ChiTeen/ChiZine, 2016.
287 pp., trade pbk. & pdf, $16.99 (pdf).
ISBN 978-1-77148-385-8 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-77148-386-5 (pdf).
Grades 7-9 / Ages 12-14.
Review by Rob Bittner.
Johnny hit the finish line a few kilometers per hour shy of the sound barrier.
A millisecond later he plowed into a ledge and was instantly crushed flat. Agony ripped through his body; he struggled to hold onto consciousness. Onto his molecules. If he evaporated from impacting with a ledge … then it was the same as dying: he’d lose and it would all mean nothing.
It was close. The first thing that told Johnny he was still alive was a strange wafting sensation. He realised it was his third eyeball, pounded flat: hanging over the ledge and flapping in the wind….
The second thing that told Johnny he was alive was the sound of cheering. All around him, thousands of skids he didn’t know, losing their freaking minds.
They live fast. They die fast. They play the game. They are the Skids.
With three eyes, extendable arms, tank treads instead of legs, and the ability to change shape at will, the Skids are built for game play. They only have five years to live, if they don’t get vaped first, and most don’t make it past year one. There are a few level nine Skids, and once upon a time there was even a level Ten, though she disappeared 50 years ago. Johnny is a level eight, and he is gunning to be the first level ten in half a century, though his feud with Albert might see him vaped before he can make it, that is until he follows in the near-suicidal footsteps of Betty Crisp, the level ten, and gains superhero status among the other Skids, achieving a jump to level nine!
Things seem to be going pretty well for Johnny, even if Albert and he aren’t super friendly anymore. But then one day during a game on the Pipe, the ground rips apart and Johnny, his friend Torg, Albert, and hundreds of other Skids fall into an unknown land of black shadows and white swords, both of which want the Skids dead. As they run for their lives, Johnny and his friends (and not-quite-friends-anymore) discover their world is actually quite small and that the universe is expanding around them faster and farther than they can fathom. Will they be able to save their own world (the Skidsphere) and the rest of the system as well?
The Skids has been compared to The Matrix and Ready Player One, but I think these comparisons erroneously imbue the novel with a complexity and nuance that it does not quite live up to. If I had to compare The Skids to another science fiction tradition, I would say it more closely resembles Tron—with a splash of Toy Story’s three-eyed aliens—especially due to the on-the-nose metaphors utilized throughout the novel. I am not belittling Keeling’s work, but there is an obviousness to the story and the characters that allows for less of a complex metaphor than perhaps he was intending.
The main characters—Johnny, Torg, Albert, Bian, Betty Crisp, and Wobble—are interesting and about as well-rounded as they can be, considering they are inhuman simulations in a world of games and information. Perhaps my favourite character in the novel is Wobble, whom readers are introduced to later in the book, and who plays an almost deus ex machina role in later action sequences and moments of impending doom. He provides moments of humour and is also given a very significant backstory as a traitor to his original mission to destroy the Skids. The Skids is definitely an action driven novel, which is exhilarating, but also left me feeling less than satisfied with the character development of certain secondary characters, particularly Bian and Albert.
The world building is pretty thorough, though I found myself having to re-read passages numerous times to truly understand the makeup of the Skidsphere where all of the characters originally live before their lives are so unceremoniously interrupted. Descriptions of the various games left me confused, and I was unable to fully immerse myself into the story as a result. Also, as much as I loved Wobble as a character, his deus ex machina status made me feel as though the Skids were never truly in as much danger as Keeling would often suggest. His seemingly endless arsenal of weapons, and his ability to continually heal himself created situations in which the stakes did not truly seem as high as they could have been. That being said, the fight sequences definitely kept me hooked!
The main concern I have for this book is that it does not seem to have a particular audience in mind. The Skids, themselves, seem like characters in a children’s game, which I felt would have suited a middle grade audience, but then the addition of made-up curses, moments of violence, and some sexual innuendo made me wonder if the audience is intended to be older teens. The cover as well first made me think I was reading a novel for older children and tweens. While it is not entirely detrimental, the seeming identity crisis left me unsure in the end.
I think there is a lot to enjoy here, and as I’ve noted, I was enthralled and definitely enjoyed the story overall. I worry, however, that The Skids will have a difficult time finding its audience as it is currently being marketed.
Rob Bittner has a PhD in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (SFU), and is also a graduate of the MA in Children’s Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He loves reading a wide range of literature, but particularly stories with diverse depictions of gender and sexuality.
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