Vivian Vande Velde
Houghton Mifflin, 2002 315 pgs
Despite protesters intent on protecting children from the dangers of video games outside its doors, Giannine enters a Rasmussem Gaming Center, intent on using the birthday gift certificate from her estranged father on a virtual reality game. She chooses a game set in medieval times, putting herself as the successor to the throne of a legendary kingdom. She has three days (in game time, real time is shorter) to convince rivals, enemies and staff that she is worthy of the crown and be declared the new monarch. Once in the game Janine (as she is now called in the game) is informed that the protesters compromised the game and she is in real danger. She must complete the game within a certain amount of time or suffer brain overload, resulting in permanent brain damage and, possibly, death. The stakes become real as Janine meets her three half brothers (rivals to the throne) and the queen, her late father's widow. Three advisers present themselves and Janine must decide which one to trust. Disgruntled townspeople looking to overthrow the government, disloyal guardsmen, and a neighboring band of raiding barbarians all need to be appeased. She has the help of three wizards with different powers, but they are also not to be trusted and must be cunningly dealt with. Luckily, she has the use of certain items of magic, including a ring which commands the wearer to do her bidding, but Janine must be wise as to when to use the magical items. After several poor attempts, taking Janine all the way back to the beginning of the game, she finally makes it almost to the end. She must battle the fearsome dragon and make it back for the coronation. Will she win the game before time runs out?
Reading Heir Apparent is like playing a video game. The action is quick, the characters are vast and the game keeps restarting. This book will appeal to today's youth and will make fantasy/science fiction approachable to realistic kids. This book is an easy sell to boys and with a female protagonist also makes it girl-friendly. The many restarts that Janine undergoes should make the story repetitive and tedious, but Vande Velde writes the story in a way that we experience the repetition quickly without the details and the plot picks up freshly. There are many characters in this book, all with strange names. I'm usually hopeless with sorting out characters, especially with names I don't have a frame of reference for. For some reason the characters are all drawn so distinctly that this is not a problem. The characters are a bit one dimensional (as in a video game), but that works well in this book. I love the concept, love the fast moving plot and was satisfied with how Janine eventually played out her game. My only complain is the bitter end, when Janine gets back to reality at Rasmussen Gaming Center. I am often not happy with the endings of books, authors seem to struggle with them. My favorite books are those with well written and conceived endings. Vande Velde ends everything overly happy with the owner of Rasmussen Enterprises turning out to be a cute 16 year old boy who looks like one of the characters and then Giannine's father walks into the center, indicating that her family problems are all over. What? The book was really fun, but I could have done without the last seven pages. Kids won't care. They like a happy ending with no loose threads. Heir Apparent is at first glance a cautionary tale against video games, but really isn't. the bad guys are the protesters and Vande Velde is making a statement concerning people against fantasy and make believe. Kids won't care what her statement is, they will just devour this book. Psst...Hollywood: this would make an awesome movie.