Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Moon Maze Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

Cowles Industries is one of the premiere entertainment venues on the planet, running live-action roleplaying games complete with costumes, holograms and sets that put most Hollywood movies to shame. Partnered with the IFGS, the International Fantasy Gaming Society, they run games that, in addition to being run for the players of the game, are also simulcast to entertainment venues all over the planet. And now, they have pulled off the biggest coup in the history of gaming- their latest game will be played on the Moon itself, in one of the habitats that has been constructed both on and below the surface.

But Cowles industries and the fans and other players of the IFGS are not the only ones looking forward to the Moon Maze game. This time, an actual celebrity, Prince Ali Kikaya of the African nation of Kikaya, is taking part in the game. And two expatriates of Kikaya have received word of his coming, and are making plans to capture him and use his abduction to overthrow Ali's father, once democratically elected to be ruler of his people, only to betray them all by declaring himself King and making Ali his heir.

But Ali isn't going into the game alone- Scotty Griffin, the son of Alex Griffin, former head of Security at Dream Park, will be coming along as Ali's bodyguard. Scotty once lived on the Moon Colony with his wife, Kendra, until a horrible accident nearly killed him and left him with several phobias, including the sight of the stars. His resulting problems broke his marriage apart, but Kendra still lives on the Moon Colony and is the Administrator there. Returning to the Moon is going to make Scotty have to really face his fears, and the emotional turmoil from his broken marriage.

Also going to the Moon for the game is the Game Master, Xavier. He's a weird and eccentric man who is happy that two former friends are among the gamers chosen for the game. Alexandra Chan and Wayne Gibson. But not because he will be happy to see them again- Xavier has always blamed Wayne for reporting his cheating on his thesis, and Alexandra for choosing a relationship with Wayne over one with him. They had once bonded over their love for games, but Xavier is intending to use this game to destroy them both as gamers and to have his cheerful revenge on both of them.

But when a group of professional kidnappers act in the early stage of the game to seize Ali and shut off the dome in which the game is being run to use as his prison until they can transport him back to earth to use him as a pawn in a play against his father, the kidnappers make their first mistake by imprisoning the gamers as well, along with a Moon Colony native hired to play a guide NPC named Darla, someone who helped construct the dome that they have been playing in. Now, the gamers are in a real adventure, one being played for keeps, and it is going to take all their bravery and wits to prevail against the kidnappers.

Defeating game foes and thugs is usually a snap for the gamers-but the kidnappers, known as Neutral Moresnot, aren't running to a script, and their weapons are for real. Can Scotty keep Ali safe, and can Wayne lead the group into triumphing over foes that are more ruthless than any they have faced before? And can they trust Xavier, who wanted the entire group to fail, to work with them and help them succeed in the most ruthless game of their entire lives?

I started reading the Dream Park books back when the first one was released. It was right up my alley, as I was an avid roleplayer of Dungeons and Dragons, and I loved everything about it. That continued with the Barsoom Project, the California Voodoo Game and even the Role-Playing Game version of the Game. I love the world that both authors have built, and how they have skillfully interwoven mysteries into each of the novels.

But while other books have interwoven the game and the mystery, in this book, the mystery itself (the kidnapping and hostage situation) becomes the game that the players must play, and the backdrops for the game become both obstacles that they must work together to pass, and opportunities to turn the tables on their attackers and take them down while making their way to an exit and unttapping it so that allies can enter the dome to help defeat the kidnappers. The related mysteries of who is helping the attackers and working to ferret out the connections that made the entire attack possible are interwoven into the plot and make the cuts away from the gamers equally tense in their own way.

I really enjoyed this book, which grabbed my attention from the start and never let it go. the book's tension made me never want to put it down once I started it, which was hard, since I started reading it at work. I had only intended to read the beginning, but that didn't work out very well for me. I blasted through this book in only about two to three hours and was entertained every step of the way. The narrative kept pulling me along right to the end, and as the book escalated in danger, it kept me on the edge of my seat in every sense of the word.

This is an excellent book that will appeal to those who love all sorts of Roleplaying Games, books set in the universes of RolePlaying Games, people who love videogames and people who just love tense thriller/mysteries and a near-future setting. One of the best books I have read this year, if not the best, handled with a light, deft touch that makes everything even better. Highly recommended.

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