It is impossible not to enjoy an FBI agent who has both the skills of a trained killer and an aging bladder. Indeed, senior citizens of varying skills and weaknesses—tech savvy and technophobic among them—are prominent among the large cast of characters. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of young, muscular, sexy adventurers too. There’s a demographic for everyone, from the cerebral armchair reader who doesn’t fancy herself much of a 21st-century thrill-seeker to the hippest of gamers.
The novel opens with a tense staff meeting at cyber-game company Xperion, led with brutally iron hands by founders Jasmine and Marcus Day—a disagreeably eccentric couple. At issue is a troublesome system bug in its top product, Land of Might and Magic (LMM), a wildly popular Virtual Reality game. Gruesome killings from within the game have started to get mirrored in the real world.
The story then switches to a macabre, sado-masochistic scene. Afterward, another LMM character, ranger Darshana, leads an adventure tour that goes weirdly wrong in ways that don’t quite make sense. Top-rated gamer Shea is as good as her avatar; she profits from points earned within the game while also earning a salary as a highly proficient repair tech for VR equipment, including tech by Xperion. But the foul-up in Darshana’s tour robs Shea of both the tools that she has earned within the game (e.g., magic protection orbs) and her hard-won place near the top level of its players.
Shea soon enters a partnership with Falin, a mysterious player who seems on one hand to have insights beyond even her sophisticated level (most notably in his ability to keep hidden his real-life identity) and on the other to show rookie weaknesses that require her to rescue him repeatedly. Falin has a quest, and a life-and-death ticking clock pushes them both forward in it.
The major storyline outside of the virtual world features FBI member Parker Reid looking into a murder (soon followed by a second) involving ritualistic decapitation and body arrangement. Killings pop up in disparate locations—Florida, Las Vegas—among victims with no apparent connections. As the investigation proceeds, characters die or become suspects, and the violence inside LMM disturbingly mirrors that in the “Real-Real.”
Following an extremely satisfying climax (there’s a cat involved), the denouement and wrap-up are a bit clunky in tying up a few overly-techy loose ends. But this is a minor quibble. Overall, RED SCREEN tells an engaging, satisfying tale that delivers entertainment and insight into a world that could almost be.
Eminently likeable characters face parallel dangers from both real and virtual worlds in Daniel Burke’s RED SCREEN, a delightful, often funny, always compelling thriller, even for readers unfamiliar with VR or gaming.
~Anne Welsbacher for IndieReader