Serena’s Review: “Questland”

Book: “Questland” by Carrie Vaughn

Publishing Info: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books, June 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Dr. Addie Cox is a literature professor living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, hires her to guide a mercenary strike team to his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Cox is puzzled by their need for her, until she understands what Lang has built. It’s said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and Lang wanted to prove it. On this distant outpost, he has created an enclave full of fantasy and gaming tropes made real, with magic rings that work via neurotransmitters, invisible cloaks made of nanotech smart fabric, and mythological creatures built from genetic engineering and bionics.

Unfortunately for Lang, the designers and engineers hired to construct his Questland have mutinied. Using an energy field, they’ve cut off any communications and are preventing any approach to the island. Lang must retake control before the U.S. military intervenes. The problem? The mutiny is being led by the project’s chief designer, Dominic Brand, who also happens to be Addie Cox’s ex-boyfriend. It’s up to her to quell the brewing tensions between the tech genius, the armed mercenaries, and her former lover before the island goes up in flames.

Review: This was an impulse read for me based purely on the fact that the description sounded sort of like “Jurassic Park but with magic.” Plus, how often do you get to see a literature professor be the hero of the story? As a literature major myself, not often, I’ll say! The concept altogether seemed just weird enough to work. Unfortunately, for me, it landed a bit flat. Which is the exact opposite of what you want from a story that should be a high octane romp!

Addie’s life, while not particularly thrilling, is stable and predictable. For example, one evening while in her office at work, it is completely predictable to be faced with a student who has not fully thought through their paper idea that sounds suspiciously like an excuse to just play a lot of video games. What is a surprise, however, is to be suddenly whisked away by mysterious players and informed that her unique skillsets have qualified her for a mission. Namely, she’s familiar with stories and an island that has been technically enhanced to play out these stories in real life has gone rogue. Now Addie and a team must venture into the wilds and make contact with Addie’s ex-boyfriend, the brilliant man at the heart of the dysfunctional island.

There were definitely some fun ideas in this book. For fantasy fans, spotting all of the references and similarities to classic fantasy works and tropes made for much of the enjoyment. “Lord of the Rings” got a heavy dose, so that in particular stood out. And the general character beats hit well. Addie is the survivor of a school shooting that left her boyfriend and best friend dead. Her struggles with PTSD have driven her life to a large extent and make her particularly uncomfortable working with the military task force who breach the island alongside her. I really enjoyed watching the mutual respect between these two forces come together, particularly the clear (to the reader, maybe not to Addie) understanding that the military characters had for Addie and how she was tackling a struggle that is so real for many in that field.

Ultimately, however, I struggled to really buy into the scenario at the heart of the book. In many ways, the concept (and goals) are similar to “Ready Player One.” Essentially, the author creates some sort of system that allows for their character and readers to revel in all the best-hits of whatever genre their focusing on. For “Ready Player One,” that was 80s pop culture. For this book, it’s classic fantasy and RPG tropes. However, the concept of the island was hard for me to really buy into. We’re meant to believe it has gone rogue for five months, that a team of military personnel have already died trying to reach it, and that, somehow, this is all still operating in secret and without the knowledge of the government.

From there, the decisions of Addie’s ex-boyfriend and the crew that worked with him were equally hard to understand. Their end goal seemed silly, that somehow cutting off contact to the island would result in them being given control of it from the tech billionaire who owned it and employed them. From a team of people who must be incredibly smart to build the island’s systems in the first place, they seemed remarkably dumb about real-world concepts and consequences. It made it really hard to take them, or their position, seriously.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of the very small subgenre that is LitRPG. With this book, it seems that the author is attempting to merge that type of storytelling with more classic, and generally approachable, fantasy fare. I’m not sure it’s a success, however. I feel that many LitRPG readers would prefer books that simply went that route more fully, and that classic fantasy readers will struggle to accept the premise as its laid out. If you’re a fan of LitRPG, this might be worth checking out. But it’s a fairly lackluster fantasy novel at its bare bones.

Rating 6: I struggled to believe the basic concept at the heart of the story, and from there, even the best character work wasn’t enough to save it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Questland” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on a list like this Books About Video Games and Virtual Reality.

Find “Questland” at your library using WorldCat!

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