In a not-too-distant future, fourteen-year-old Giannine Bellisario takes a birthday gift certificate to her favorite gaming place, intent on spending an hour or so in a different world, doing something fun. She has to trick the artificial-intelligence bus computer into letting her off near the gaming center because of the protesters picketing out front. The group called CPOC (Citizens to Protect Our Children) believes that the center's virtual reality games are harmful to children. Giannine tells us that the group insists that children should only watch G-rated movies and read books without any violent, supernatural or frightening elements. "That about kills my entire reading list," she says.
Once inside the gaming center, she looks through the available games and picks one called Heir Apparent, which appears exciting, has wizards and dragons - and also some good-looking characters. This particular game has a variety of ways for the player to win, not just a single series of set choices. Once inside the game, Giannine finds herself in the body of a singularly smelly farm girl who learns that she is the king's illegitimate daughter, declared the heir to the throne on the king's deathbed. But there are many people, not least of which are the king's legitimate sons as well as the queen, who are opposed to her gaining the throne and will try to kill her. And kill her they do.
After she dies and is sent back to start again as the stinky sheep girl, there is an interruption in the game, and a presence appears, apparently from the real world, telling her that the CPOC protesters had entered the gaming center and smashed some of the equipment. They cannot disconnect her from the computer until she successfully completes the game, or she may suffer brain damage. And oh, by the way, she'd better do it quickly, because if it takes her too long she'll suffer brain damage anyway.
Vande Velde tells (and retells) the story with admirable skill, and even though Giannine repeatedly finds herself back at the sheep farm after making one fatal mistake after another, she learns from her mistakes and applies fascinating approaches to overcoming those mistakes on her next try. Never does the narrative become repetitive and dull - there is always something new, a different angle to captivate the reader.
The story is funny and exciting, and - as with all of Vande Velde's books - her turns of phrase are a pleasure to read. Her amusing chapter titles had me grinning ("Morning Comes Early When There's No Snooze Button" is one I particularly enjoyed. And here is my personal favorite passage. Giannine has been given a magical potion to drink, with a bit of added mint (which she detests) to cover up the unpleasant taste:
Not one of her best tasting potions had Orielle said? Imagine a ninety-five degree August day, and a construction worker slaving away on the melting asphalt. Then imagine licking toothpaste out of his armpit.
I read this book for the Mythopoeic Challenge, and I can easily see why it was a contender in the YA category. It is funny, exciting, even moving at times. I highly recommend it!