Tyler MacCandless can’t focus, even when he takes his medication. He can’t focus on school, on his future, on a book, on much of anything other than taking care of his older brother, Brandon, who’s in rehab for heroin abuse… again.
Tyler’s dad is dead and his mom has mentally checked out. The only person he can really count on is his Civilian Air Patrol Mentor, Rick. The one thing in life it seems he doesn’t suck at is playing video games and, well, that’s probably not going to get him into college.
Just when it seems like his future is on a collision course with a life sentence at McDonald’s, Rick asks him to test a video game. If his score’s high enough, it could earn him a place in flight school and win him the future he was certain that he could never have. And when he falls in love with the game’s designer, the legendary gamer Ani, Tyler thinks his life might finally be turning around.
That is, until Brandon goes MIA from rehab and Tyler and Ani discover that the game is more than it seems. Now Tyler will have to figure out what’s really going on in time to save his brother… and prevent his own future from going down in flames.
Before I address anything else, I have to address the question that popped into my head after finishing the book: is Playing Tyler science fiction? Arguments could be made for both answers to that question. While there is a lot of tech, gaming, and computers etc. crucial to the plot of the book, what is the science fictional idea behind it? Is it the gamification of war by remote control? Gamers changing the world? I’m not sure. If there is far future and near future SF, this book is current SF, because I don’t doubt the tech to do this exists and it’s just the faith in humanity I cling to by the skin of my teeth, which makes me believe this hasn’t already happened somewhere in some form. While I’m still not clear on is it or is it not SF, I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter; near future SF, current SF, or contemporary techno thriller, Playing Tyler is a fantastic read.
What sets Playing Tyler apart is its voice. The story is told from two points of view, Tyler and Ani, and both have their own identifiable voice, but Tyler’s is something special. Suffering from ADHD and not on his meds, Costa manages to convey the chaos in Tyler’s head clearly, not just by his words but by the rhythm of Tyler’s narrative, especially his (inner) dialogue. It’s choppy and jumpy and while it feels genuine and true to how it might be to have ADHD, at the same time Tyler isn’t a stereotype; he isn’t just his ADHD. He is far more than that. He’s quite intelligent, social, kind, and caring for his mum and his brother comes before everything, even school. In contrast, Ani puts school before everything. To be able to go to Yale, she needs to keep her job at Haranco, even if Mr Anderson is putting restrictions on her that make her uncomfortable. Both Tyler and Ani are military kids and both have suffered losses. Tyler lost his pilot dad, and consequently his family life and Ani’s dad went to Afghanistan, came back with an undiagnosed case of PTSD and was sent to jail after snapping as a result. It’s both heart-breaking and interesting how their loss has shaped them and their view of war and warfare: Tyler wants nothing more than to enlist as a pilot, while Ani doesn’t want anything to do with it.
Many themes can be discerned in the story; there’s dealing with loss; the thriller aspect; first love; addiction and its consequences. There is a lot going on and it mostly ties together quite well. The only thing I struggled with was Tyler’s mum suddenly checking back in at the end of the book. That felt just too neat, especially given the events leading up to the resolution of the book. The relationship between Tyler and his brother Brandon was so painful and complicated and Tyler’s sense of responsibility towards both Brandon and his mum just broke my heart. Tyler’s anger, guilt, and anguished fear of losing another loved one are portrayed beautifully and intensely, almost dripping off the page in places. Playing Tyler had me crying at two separate points in the novel and they both centred on the brothers.
Playing Tyler is a wonderful debut with a fantastic voice that will haunt you between readings. My only problem with the book was its ending, which felt somewhat rushed, but other than that, I loved it. While it is a standalone book and I don’t expect Costa to return to this setting, I can’t wait to find out what she will do next. If Playing Tyler is just the first of many, this promises some amazing reads in the future.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.