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John Chu is a “sherpa”, a paid guide to online role-playing games like the popular Call to Wizardry. For a fee, he and his crew will provide you with a top-flight character equipped with the best weapons and armor, and take you dragon-slaying in the Realms of Asgarth, hunting rogue starships in the Alpha Sector, or battling hordes of undead in the zombie apocalypse.
Chu’s new client, the pseudonymous Mr. Jones, claims to be a “wealthy, famous person” with powerful enemies, and he’s offering a ridiculous amount of money for a comprehensive tour of the world of virtual-reality gaming. For Chu, this is a dream assignment, but as the tour gets underway, he begins to suspect that Mr. Jones is really North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whose interest in VR gaming has more to do with power than entertainment. As if that weren’t enough to deal with, Chu also has to worry about “Ms. Pang,” who may or may not be an agent of the People’s Republic of China, and his angry ex-girlfriend, Darla Jean Covington, who isn’t the type to let an international intrigue get in the way of her own plans for revenge.
What begins as a whirlwind online adventure soon spills over into the real world. Now Chu must use every trick and resource at his disposal to stay one step ahead—because in real life, there is no reset button.
Between the very popular novel Lovecraft Country and the sequel, Destroyer of Worlds, Matt Ruff published a novel about video games. 88 Names follows John Chu, a “sherpa” who has a group of gamers that help players complete challenges for a price. In open world online video games, this is something that people with a great deal of money but no time hire to have a fun time in the video games without doing the hours of character building and rough work. John makes money by helping them with the video game experience, and this is also how he gets his accounts banned. Fortunately he has several accounts, several characters that he can draw from at any moment. When he gets a job from a mysterious player named Mr. Jones, he finds himself deeper into a thriller than he expected when he started playing a game.
88 Names is readable and somewhat interesting, but as a whole, the plot seems pretty bland. The only thing that keeps this somewhat interesting is the variations on the games that John Chu plays online. We do not get a ton of repetition of John playing the same game over and over. In fact we barely get the same thing twice. Instead we get a bunch of different games, including a Star Wars like war game, a Grand Theft Auto like heist game, and even a text based circus/carnival game. The games are varied enough to where I kept reading the book, but in the end, the overarching plot falls kind of flat. The one thing that did get me through the novel was that I thought it was pretty funny. There is times when the trolling between characters is amusing, but maybe this is something that those who do not play games online do not experience. I can see some readers having zero connection to this world or the characters, thus making for a miserable reading experience.
I did like Lovecraft Country, and I am excited to read Destroyer of World, but this novel does not do much for me. It really does not feel up to the same standards as much of the rest of Matt Ruff’s collected work. Even though the idea of a VR, video game novel seems like a fun time, 88 Names is not as fun as it promises to be.