Book Review – Armada by Ernest Cline

When I went to BookPeople a couple of weeks ago for the reading/book signing of “The Oracle Year” by Charles Soule,  I also picked up a copy of a signed edition of “Armada” by Ernest Cline. I pretty much purchase dead tree books for only two reasons these days:

  1. I love the book and/or author so much (for example, Neil Gaiman) that I want the hardback version on my bookshelves.
  2. I’ve either had the author sign the book or the bookstore has signed editions so I can add it to my bookshelves.

Armada by Ernest Cline“Armada” fell into the number 2 category. Other than one review from a friend of mine shortly after it was published almost 3 years ago (and that didn’t matter because I couldn’t remember if it was a good review or a bad review), I hadn’t seen any other reviews on the book and my first thought was, “Well, it’s the same author who wrote “Ready Player One” so it’s probably a good read.”

When I was checking out, the clerk asked me if I’d seen the movie. We both quickly figured out he was referencing Cline’s first book “Ready Player One” and had a good laugh. I told him that reading the inside flap description made “Armada” sound like another “The Last Starfighter” and he said, “You’d be pretty close in getting that impression.”

So, a few days ago I had the time to start reading “Armada”  and finished it last night.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way; “Armada” is indeed another story with constant references to pop culture from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. If you liked “Ready Player One” because of those references, then you should LOVE “Armada” all to pieces. It felt like there were double or triple the pop culture references, mostly under the umbrella of sci-fi, (video games, movies, TV shows, etc.) but also a lot of music and even commercial jingles. I enjoy those references as much as most people who lived through them, but they really almost got to be too heavy-handed in their use in this story.

I don’t want to spoil anything for those who have not read the book and intend to, so I’ll try to keep this as generic as possible, but you already have an idea from “The Last Starfighter” comparison above.

And I’ll say from the beginning; I wanted to like this book. I really, really enjoyed “Ready Player One”, so I was hoping that “Armada” would be just as good, if not better than “Ready Player One.” I mean, there’s always that question when you have such a hit like “Ready Player One” as your first book,  “Will the author’s sophomore book be as good as their freshman offering?”

In this case, close, but no cigar.

Zach Lightman is a high school senior about to graduate and contemplating life after school. He’s a video playing kind of nerd who works in a video game store after school and on weekends and lives with his widowed mom. His father died in a sewage plant accident when Zach was less than a year old. His two best friends are gamers too, but they’re not as good as Zach.

It turns out that all the top video games on the market are just a way for Big Brother to find out who their best defenders might be because aliens are coming to destroy the world. Turns out his boss at the video game store is not who Zach thinks he is; his dad may or may not have really died in the shit plant accident; and he meets a super smart beautiful girl his age who’s being recruited as well.

You could probably write the rest of this book yourself. Right down to the schmaltzy ending.

I think the most disappointing thing was that this felt like a “write by the numbers” story. The characters were cardboard, plucked from central casting, given a standard background and then placed in a formulaic “80’s coming of age saving the world tale” that was so easy to predict it lost any of its suspense. I’ve often said there’s nothing wrong with a formulaic story if it’s handled properly. If you give the characters lives that are as real as possible and work the story in such a way that plotting is not as obvious as one plus one equals two, then you craft a story that makes it stand out from the formula.

“Armada” is a perfectly readable and serviceable story, but it is not even close to being as good as “Ready Player One.” I felt like Cline just relied on the standard tropes for this kind of story and put no effort into making it stand out. It was disappointing.

I’m sure Cline has another great book in him, but it’s not this one.

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