This is the first Lisa Tuttle book that I’ve read, though I have several more already lined up on my Kindle, and it probably wasn’t the best one to choose. English girl Rose Durcan has come to stay with her grandmother at Wishbone Creek while her scientist parents head out for fieldwork in Africa. This means Rose must attend American high school, something which fills her with anxiety: she’d much rather be online, playing long-distance with her brother Simon (a student at Oxford) in one of their multiplayer adventures. But school has to be endured, and her first day isn’t that bad: she sees the delectable Orson Banks, on whom she immediately develops a crush. Unfortunately, Orson only has eyes for the aloof Olivia, who in turn has no interest in dating. But there is one way that Rose can get close to Orson: the online gaming world of Illyria, where Orson takes the role of Count Orsini and Rose, eager to spend even some virtual time in his company, adopts the persona of a helpful young musician, Roberto.
Is this ringing any bells? Perhaps they’ll ring louder if I say that Olivia has an overweight, clumsy cousin called Toby, and that her family are currently employing a local boy named Malcolm as a butler – and that Malcolm has conceived an unreciprocated passion for Olivia? Or if I mention that Rose’s brother Simon also occasionally pops into the online world of Illyria, where he risks making the usual pangs of adolescent amour even more complicated? Yes, Tuttle’s novel is a not-very-thinly-disguised adaptation of Twelfth Night, which shifts between teenage angst and trips to the mall, and online escapades in Illyria with dragons and the fearsome CyberQueen – who has developed an unwanted interest in Roberto. How will Rose get out of her problem? Her beloved Orson is much taken with Roberto, but only as a friend; and how can she get him to notice her in real life when he can’t see beyond the pedestal on which he’s set up Olivia?
Now, I’m all for reimagined Shakespeare, but this just didn’t quite work. By trying to keep the parallels going across both real-world and virtual-world plots, Tuttle just threw too many balls into the air. Rose herself does come across as believable, but her relationships with the other characters (and indeed the other characters’ actions and personalities) feel forced, with the sole aim of getting everything to follow the pattern of Twelfth Night. Tuttle’s solutions to that are fun, but the whole thing does feel incredibly contrived and very convenient (even more so than Shakespeare’s original), especially when the online personas are taken into account as well. I haven’t played any online multiplayer games so I have no idea whether the kind of gaming Tuttle describes is slightly out-of-date or whether online worlds like Illyria are still created through text. I’d be interested to know from anyone who plays in similar worlds.
I’m not saying this is a bad book; far from it. I’m just saying that, while it’s an appealing concept, I’d have found it much easier to follow if the online Illyria sections hadn’t been there (and Tuttle had found a way to keep all of the Twelfth Night parallels in the real world), or if the real-world subplots had been pruned to allow for a smoother interaction between real-world and Illyria (and more glimpses of the latter). As it is, the story feels like a concept piece: a playful response to a challenge, not something that stands strong on its own. Tuttle seems to have been constrained by her source material, rather than liberated by it, and I’d like to see how she fares when she’s writing original fiction, rather than trying to fit parameters created by someone else. Her prose is pacy and witty, however, and I’m sure her other books are going to be much more successful.