A review of Gamers’ Challenge by George Ivanoff

Reviewed by Jenny Mounfield

Gamers’ Challenge by George Ivanoff
Publisher: Ford Street Publishing
Format: PB YA 11+
Price: AUD $16.95
ISBN: 978 1 921665 51 6

In the 2010 Chronos Award winner, Gamers’ Quest, readers were introduced to Tark and Zyra, two gutter-speaking thieves caught in a never-ending quest for Paradise. The pair fought their way through one Designers’ construct after another, only to discover the Designers had abandoned the game long ago.

Having shrugged off their programming, Tark and Zyra have been replaced and are now condemned to the fringes of the game. Relentlessly pursued by balls of static that consume everything they come into contact with, it seems certain our heroes won’t last long. Then they meet another Outer, Tee, who introduces them to others who have defied the Designers’ rules. Spurred on by a mythical cheat code, which will release them from the game, Tark, Zyra, Tee and his daughter, Hope, set out to find the Ultimate Gamer—the only one who can know if the code exists. The Ultimate Gamer is someone Tark and Zyra have met before. If they can prevent him killing them—something he is determined to do, it would seem—they just might discover the truth. But the static balls, controlled by a murderous anti-viral entity, have the Ultimate Gamer in their sights. What results is a final showdown that may well result in the destruction of everything.

After reading the above, one might be forgiven for thinking this is nothing more than an entertaining story aimed at an electronic game-mad audience. But don’t be fooled, Gamers’ Challenge is far more than that. What this story does is challenge our notions of reality. It raises all the big existential questions, offers some answers and then turns everything on its head. This story has the heart of Shakespeare, the soul of The Matrix, and is what Tron could have been with a little more imagination.

Gamers’ Challenge draws many parallels. When Zyra realises that she has been replaced by a new copy of herself, the connotation is biblical:

“‘Looks at her,’ said Zyra. ‘Looks at her face. It’s me! Except that she ain’t go no pimples. And her hair is stickin’ up like it’s meant ta.’ She turned to look at Tee. ‘And she ain’t gonna get older, is she? She’ll be perfect forevers.’

‘For as long as she plays,’ replied Tee. ‘But she’s trapped. Trapped in patterns of behaviour and speech. Trapped in an endless, repeating quest. Trapped by rules that stop her from getting what she really wants.’

Zyra resumed her surveillance, absently running her fingers across the pimples on her cheek.

‘Is all of that really worth eternal youth?’ asked Tee.” (Excerpt from: p 41)

So, too, Adam and Eve were promised eternal life, provided they played by the rules.

Freedom is an over-riding theme throughout the story, an ultimate goal that is mentioned by the main players on more than one occasion. Rejecting their programming is the first step. The next is leaving the game forever and discovering the world beyond. Unknown to Tark and Zyra, the paradox of this is that the ‘real’ world is every bit as limiting as the game: a game within a game—perhaps an infinity of them. I will be interested to learn whether Ivanoff has a third book planned, and to see what Tark and Zyra make of their new-found freedom. Is living the life of a programmed game piece really so bad? Isn’t having the burden of decision—of choice—removed a freedom in and of itself? And do we have more in common with these characters than we’d like to believe?

While this series is aimed at kids 11+ I see no reason why older readers won’t enjoy it. I certainly did. Teen readers will find plenty in Tark and Zyra to relate to, from the bond of friendship to their somewhat confused feelings of attraction towards each other. In many ways this is a coming of age story: What teenager hasn’t wondered about the meaning of life and tried to disentangle him or herself from the constraints of parental rule?

Ivanoff has written over 50 books for young people. In addition he writes scripts for theatre and film and short stories for both kids and adults. For more information, visit: http://georgeivanoff.com.au

About the reviewer: Jenny Mounfield is the author of three novels for children and YAs In addition, several of her short stories and articles have appeared both in print and online. She has regularly reviewed children’s books for e-zine Buzz Words since 2006 and is currently working on her first adult novel.