CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 4. . . September 29, 2017
Firewall follows Josh, a surly-ish teen forced to move from Chicago to the very small Valleytown as the result of his parents’ divorce. While he does make one new real-life friend, Griggs, he spends most of his time immersed in the video game Killswitch, a generic first-person shooter with an online co-operative team mode and plenty of user-generated maps. One day Josh and Griggs stumble upon one such map called vton, a eerily accurate facsimile of Valleytown where none of the buildings can be destroyed and a bunch of zombie-like non-player characters sport pictures of real Valleytown inhabitants, mostly from the highschool, as their faces. Josh and Griggs spend quite a lot of time exploring this online version of Valleytown, never encountering other players, but discovering a single house perpetually on fire (but never being destroyed). Later, Josh sees a report of a fire in town, one on the same street where they found the fire in the game. After getting in touch with his computer wiz sort-of-ex-sort-of-girlfriend to gain access to the controls to modify the vton map, Josh withdraws more and more into this empty virtual world, destroying the town with Griggs, and on his own creating an army of robots and his very own fortress of solitude.
After a while, Sudo, the mysterious creator of the world shows up and is angry, both that his work was destroyed and that Josh wants to continue to spend time there. Josh receives a few anonymous threatening phone calls in real life and is finally welcomed back into this online world – if he passes some tests designed by Sudo. These tests involve Josh having to kill (in-game, that is) his classmates, including a specific scenario wherein Josh follows a boy who had been bullying him home and then plants a homemade bomb under his car. When Sudo makes it clear he wants Josh to then carry out these actions in real life, Josh finally tells his dad. Well, “tells” his dad is a strong way of putting it; he vaguely mentions to his dad that something bad is happening and that he needs his dad to meet him at school at noon, the time when Sudo plans to hand off a real-life version of the bomb. Conveniently, since Josh’s dad is a cop, he arrives at school ready to arrest anyone who appears to be near his son at the appointed time, and, just as we first meet Sudo in real life, he is whisked away by law enforcement before we even learn his name. Afterwards, Josh decides to stop avoiding his sort-of-maybe-girlfriend from back in Chicago, start making friends at his new school, and abandon vton for good.
Firewall tries very hard to be a cool mystery set in the intersection of online gaming culture and high school outsiders, but its execution falls short. The initial plot is interesting and engaging, and I was looking forward to learning how Sudo would be stopped and what had driven him to this violence. Sadly, readers do not even get to find out the identity of the “mysterious” Sudo; instead, they are left with a villain with an underdeveloped motive, no backstory, not even a real-life name to identify him. I would normally include a spoiler warning if including the capture of the mysterious villain in a mystery book, but, in this case, we don’t ever learn more about Sudo than what we could glean from his online world and his interaction with Josh: he’s a high school kid, he’s into video games, and he feels alienated by his peers. While there is limited space for development in the “Orca Soundings” series which is aimed at reluctant high school readers, the plot would have benefited from less time following Josh and Griggs in their video-game world and allowing Sudo to be a character as opposed to the stock character of a bullied teen who chooses to react with violence and destruction aimed at his peers.
Rodman is a capable storyteller, and the portrayals of high school kids is quite good – there is no whiff of “hello, fellow kids”-type failed attempts to capture the youth of today in this book. With good pacing and an interesting plot, Firewall will appeal to reluctant teen male readers. With more development of the villain as well as the protagonists and a bit more focus on resolving the conflict, Firewall would have been an engaging read throughout. That being said, the trope of the disaffected teen boy losing himself in violent online video games before destructively lashing out in real life is an unfortunate stereotype to continue to perpetuate, especially when aimed at this age.
Recommended with Reservations.
Susie Wilson is the Data Services Librarian at the University of Northern British Columbia. When she isn’t at work, you’ll find her curled up with a cup of coffee and a good book.
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Commercial use is available through a contract with the CM Association. This Creative Commons license allows publishers whose works are being reviewed to download and share said CM reviews provided you credit the CM Association.