I’ll be honest, this is a book I bought on name and cover alone- Wonderscape conjures such explosions of creative magic and Paddy Donnelly’s evocative cover illustration hunting at the worlds to conquer I was sold before I got to the blurb.
However, it is an absolute genius of a concept, combining some of my favourite things including history, gaming and mystery with hints of Ready Player One and Westworld.
Arthur’s day begins badly when the gnomes start exploding outside a house on his street, but quickly gets worse when he along with popular girl Cecily and wild child Ren get transported into a 25th century with the massive task of solving the problem at the heart of the Wonderscape (a massive In-Reality Game largely run by robotic mimics under the control of the founders) before they are destroyed by the time-dimensional paradox.
I love the creativity that fuels the action and plot lines of the novel with hints from Escape Room games, complex puzzle-solving platform games, farming/rural life simulation games, racer games and open worlds and much more. If you or a child love gaming this book will evoke those you love in some way, which is such a gift in a book.
But you don’t HAVE to be into Gaming to enjoy this book.
It’s a good old fashioned adventure with mystery and puzzle aspects that anyone can enjoy.
Some problems are explained as the characters experience and affect the game, but others give that gorgeous ruminating time to help the reader feel part of the action, that delicious pause when you may be a step ahead of the characters and start squealing the answer or a clue at the pages as you may at a film or tv show.
Those are probably the most wonderful experiences of the mystery genre so to see it here applied to game inspired sci-fi fantasy is just beautiful.
The interweaving of history into these level-like realms is a masterstroke in my opinion. Regular readers may be aware that I am indeed a huge fantasy reader but I also am a lover of history. This book is intensely brilliant because whilst it interweaves two very well known and regularly studied Western Males from history (thus being a ‘yeah I’ve heard of them!’ anchoring point), but also includes female historical figures, and women of colour and women from non-Western societies across eras each of whom challenged the images, roles and expectations of women in their lifetimes.
HUGE sparkly bonus points for that.
However at the heart of any middle grade book lies the characters. You can have the most exciting adventures but if you don’t care about the protagonists then it is doomed. No such worries here even if at first glance they appear stereotypes, because the beauty of MG is how we break apart such things.
We have Arthur whose mum died when he was a baby and his dad has adapted his life to be always there for Arthur; which means less money, no ‘career’, no new uniforms and second hand phones, but he is deeply loved. Anxious, painfully self aware, loveable boy from the poor part of town but interested in science and determined to get home, he feels inadequate with the others but soon proves his worth is more than his social status and postcode.
Cecily the popular rich girl daughter of celebrity hairdressers, but with a twist. She is more complex than your Typical ‘Queen Bee’ bringing some representation through her mixed heritage and reveals a much softer and kind side through her interactions with Cloud and vulnerability as her story unfolds too.
And Ren who ticks all the boxes at first for a manga/anime gutsy bad girl with kohl rimmed eyes, an attitude and a reputation to scorch as the new girl in town. But as the novel progresses we see a barrier has been put up due to her heritage and her mothers, and we see a girl who doesn’t want to be bullied but equally doesn’t want to compromise herself to fit in.
As I said they appear at first to fit a ‘type’ but like real people unfold to become much more complex and deep and charismatic making you quickly move towards caring that they get home.
I think it’s fair to say there’s a dash of Westworld and Ready Player One in this book, but in a good way and without the male gaze 💜🥰 as Bell brings a softer, building-bonds-not-Romance focus and focus on girls having depth not just manic pixie girls and Arthur is certainly far far far more likeable as a male lead!
The robot mimics that do the day to day functioning of the game have aspects of the context of Westworld with robots playing out the same story/world for the entertainment of privileged humans to be reset again for new play, the concepts of AI rights and sentience are touched upon too. Furthermore, the immersion of plot within in-game settings and the platform game reminiscent problem solving aspects alongside the search for Milo a creator of the Wonderscape means I would recommend fans of Ready Player One, or those hesitant to give that to their child yet to certainly pick up this book and see how brilliant it is (And why I much prefer it)
Wonderscape is definitely a book I would love to see turned into film and DEFINITELY as a game- I would buy and play this!!
If you like MG fantasy adventure this is a great read anyway, but if you like a dash of sci-fi and to play games, or indeed want to tempt a gamer into reading a book THIS is a fantastic choice.
Wonderscape by Jennifer Bell is published by Walker Books