Armada by Ernest Cline | Book Review

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Do you remember when Ready Player One became big? Like, really big? Really really big? It made it so big that I got my copy not from my local book haberdashery, no, not them. I got a copy of this from my Loot Crate. And why did it come is such a crate? In such a bastion for nerdom? That’s because it was, and is, nerd paradise in written form. Do you love the 80’s? Then you probably loved Ready Player One. But then came Armada, also by Ernest Cline. Could that book even compare to Cline’s greatest hit? Did he blow his load with the first or did he save some in the chamber for his follow up novel. Here’s my review.

If you’re friends with me on GoodReads, then you already know how I feel. But even if you’ve been spoiled for the ending of this review, please stick around for the meat of the issue. But let me start out by giving you a brief synopsis of the book: Zack Lightman loves video games and doesn’t care for the real world. One day he thinks he sees a space ship straight out of his favorite video game, Armada, and wonders if he’s loosing his mind. He learns that he’s not and he could be part of the plan to save the human race, if he wants to.
I went into this with an open mind. While I loved Ready Player One, I kept my hopes in check for Armada. Though I have the feeling that even if I didn’t, I would still have had the same problems with the book that I do now.
Sometimes you read a book, watch a movie, or watch a show, and you can’t help but feel that the author/creators got their inspiration from somewhere. Sometimes they just dabble in their inspiration while other times they “borrow” so heavily that you can’t help but wonder if it’s a blatant rip off. Ernest Cline falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not accusing him of plagiarism or being “a biter” as my high school self would say. I’m simply saying that he pulled a Kanye West and sampled heavier than a glutton at Costco.
Is this really a bad thing? Some of you may be asking this. Yes and no. It is a bad thing because it took some of the surprise away from the book but only if you’re well versed in your classic Sci-Fi. I’ve read and watched a lot of science fiction, so nothing in this book surprised me, and that was a shame. The thing is, Ernest Cline is very up front about what he’s borrowed from and even blatantly references them. The two biggest contributors to this book are Ender’s Game by Olsen Scott Card and the 1984 Sci-fi classic The Last Starfighter. Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler. Like I said, both of these are referenced in the book. But this knowledge, and the fact that I’ve very familiar with both sources, helped me figure out a lot of where the story was going.  But just because Cline acknowledges that he “borrowed” from various sources, doesn’t make it okay. It’d be one thing if the borrowing was scattered. In that case it would feel like an homage, but unfortunately it was so much that it came across as lazy.
While the constant references in Ready Player One were enjoyable, the constant references in Armada were aggravating.  It felt like there was at least one on every page and some pages had up to four references in it. It was a constant bombardment that became a crutch more than it benefited the book.
The pacing of the story was also problematic. The whole thing had a slow build with nice development until about the two thirds mark when it all hit light speed and was rushed more than a slow shopper after closing. Armada stopped feeling like a well thought out book and turned into an excited super-nerd’s masturbatory fan fiction. There were some parts that should have been emotional or exciting but it was all lost in the maelstrom of rushed prose and shoehorned references. It felt like Ready Player One was such a big deal, was such a huge hit, that Ernest Cline was pressured to pop out another book so it didn’t get the time and love it deserved.
Let us pause to take a break and talk about what I did like. I like Ernest Cline’s way with words. He really is a talented writer. I also like the idea he had. Bare bones, it’s a good idea. Armada was a perfect case of good idea, poor execution.  I’d like to talk more about what I like, but it’s not meaty enough for multiple paragraphs. There are only so many ways I can say or explain my liking of Cline’s writing style and premise.
Let’s wrap up with something that could have saved the book, but didn’t. The characters. Ready Player One had some great characters, which made the changes the movie made so frustrating. The characters and their development were so much better on paper and they were turned into two dimensional avatars on the big screen. Armada had the promise of some really good characters that could have had enjoyable story arcs, but it was all lost in the barrage of references and pacing issues. Zack Lightman was a Mary Sue. Cline tried to make him flawed by giving him an anger problem, but we never see it. We only get told about it in flashbacks. Zack’s family and friends were so underdeveloped that they could have been taken out entirely and the story wouldn’t have suffered. And to add insult to injury, Zack’s love interest, who could have been a really cool character, was nobody.
If you’ve heard me complain about the Ready Player One movie on Future Flicks then you’re familiar with this part. Art3mis was an atypical lead female character and part of that was that she didn’t look like your average heroine and also didn’t act like one. Alexis, Zack’s love interest, could have been a game changer. She could have been another deviation from the status quo of main female characters. But, just like the others, was left so underdeveloped that I forgot she existed the chapter after we met her.
The perfect title for this book is Armada: Missed Opportunities. It could have been so good. It could have been just as good as Ready Player One but it fell so short that the longer I think about it, the more time that passes, the less I like the book. I’ve read way worse, and there were enjoyable parts so that’s why this book in going to get as high a score as it does, but it could have been. Armada had more promise than substance and it’s a real shame.

Armada by Ernest Cline gets a 4 out of 11

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