When I read the wonderful Heir Apparent a few years ago, I had no idea that it was actually the second book in a series. I hate when that happens! Because then when I find the first book I already know what happened, and there are all kinds of spoilers, and the tension is just gone. It is interesting that these books were published with about 10 years between each one - that is certainly rare with series books these days.
I'm happy to say that the first book in this series actually had very little to do with the second, so despite my whining and carrying on, reading the books out of order made very little difference. The one thing that connects the two books is the virtual reality fantasy video game angle. A minor character in the first book is the heroine of the second book - but she's featured so little in the first book that I would never have even recognized her as the same person.
Arvin and a bunch of friends (and Arivn's mother, too) join to play a virtual reality video game, in which characters are transported into a fantasy role-playing environment, into the virtual bodies of the characters they've chosen to play. All the usual D&D favorites are here: the elf, the cleric, the dwarf, the thief, etc., and they encounter riddles, trolls, giant rats and such. There is a problem, though - one of the boys actually pirated the game, and it's not working exactly the way that it should. Eventually it becomes clear that there is something physically wrong with Arvin's mother, but because the pirated version of the game isn't working correctly, they can't pause the game to see if she is okay. Instead they must carry on with their adventure, dealing with the crazy stuff the computer is doing as well as supernatural foes, and they must do it quickly, before Arvin's mother fades away altogether.
This was a cute, fast-paced read, but I have to say that Heir Apparent stands head and shoulders above this one. While I didn't dislike this one, I think it's my least favorite of Vande Velde's books that I've read so far. I enjoyed the story, and the setting, and the fun magical twists to the story, but there was zero character development - to the point where I had difficulty telling the characters apart from each other. One of the fun aspects of the novel is that the characters don't know which fantasy role the others have chosen to play for their adventure - so Arvin isn't entirely sure who, for example, is the dwarf, or who is playing Robin Hood and Maid Marian. It would have been more fun had I actually been familiar with these characters before their adventure started - I had no idea who they were to begin with, so guessing which characters they were playing didn't have much payoff.
Kids who enjoy fantasy role-playing games should have a whole lot of fun with this one, though, especially if they read this one and then Heir Apparent, because they'll like the first one and then love the second. My 13-year-old just finished the third one, Deadly Pink. She hasn't read the first one yet, but I asked her which of the others was her favorite. She said she likes them both equally, for different reasons. So that's a good sign. I'd say to interested readers: read them in order, be forgiving with the first, but raise your expectations for the second. And the books really do all seem to be fairly standalone in nature, so skipping the first one won't matter so much. And I hardly ever say that when it comes to series!
Books in the User Unfriendly series:
1. User Unfriendly
2. Heir Apparent
3. Deadly Pink
User Unfriendly (#1 in the User Unfriendly series) by Vivian Vande Velde (Magic Carpet Books, 1991)
Other reviews of books by Vande Velde:
Cloaked in Red
A Hidden Magic
Three Good Deeds
Also reviewed at:
Blogcritics: "There is action and mysteries and puzzles all the way through. I was just as caught up in events as my son, thinking I’d read just one more chapter."
Small Review: "The whole concept of this book grabbed me from the start. I'm not really into video games, but this is close enough to the idea of getting sucked into a book that I'm all over it."
365 Days of Books: "The story didn't grab my attention and I didn't find myself trying to figure out what was happening; perhaps because it wasn't clear what was wrong."