Playing Tyler by T. L. Costa
Genre: YA Thriller
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Release date: July 2 2013
Source: e-ARC from publisher via NetGalley
In a word: A thrilling and tautly told tale, a manic yet lovable main character, ghastly government secrets, and fractured family dynamics galore.
I can’t decide which name I like better. SlayerGrrl makes her sound invincible, like some force of nature that can blow you over and just carry you off. I like that. I like everything about that.
Ani sounds like something sweet, something breakable, something precious. Something you want to hold and protect and whisper things to. Something to take care of and worship all at once. I like that, too.
I went into this book thinking it was science fiction, or that it was at least set in a futuristic society. (And that’s my own fault for projecting! I assumed because it was a Strange Chemistry title, it would be a genre book.) But instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find a modern story about realistic characters who find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy and are forced to figure out not only how to get out of it, but how to stay alive. Playing Tyler also has one of the most interesting main characters I’ve come across in a long time, a teen with a distinctive voice that you won’t soon forget.
Tyler is a seventeen-year-old gamer whose ADHD makes going to school tough, but seems to benefit him in other areas of his life. His video gaming abilities have caught the attention of Rick, an employee of a company named Haranco. Rick knows Tyler’s dream is to fly planes someday, so he takes him under his wing and becomes his mentor. One day Rick tells Tyler that he’s been selected to be a beta tester for a new flight simulation system, a game where the player controls drones that attack targets in a very realistic desert setting. Tyler is thrilled at first to try out the game, especially when he finds out the game’s designer is a girl he knows as SlayerGrrl, a girl who designed the popular game World of Fire. SlayerGrrl, whose real name is Ani, also works for Rick, and when she meets Tyler for the first time, she realizes she knows who he is, too: the only boy to ever beat her gaming score.
But as Tyler gets more and more into the game, things don’t seem to be quite right. He’s got a nagging suspicion about it, and the only person he can talk to is Ani. When the truth comes out, Ani and Tyler get caught in the middle, and it’s going to take all their wits to survive.
I absolutely loved Tyler’s character. The story is told in first person from both Tyler’s and Ani’s points of view. Reading Tyler’s chapters was like riding on a runaway train while on a sugar high. His character is so manic and his thoughts never slow down, mostly because he isn’t taking any medication for his ADHD. (His drug addict brother has stolen his meds.) Tyler’s family life is pretty terrible: his father is dead; his brother is currently in rehab; and his mother is suffering from depression (is it any wonder?). But as damaged as they are, Tyler loves his brother and mother and will do anything to help them. His interactions with them are priceless and heartbreaking, because he knows there isn’t a lot he can do for either one.
I enjoyed Ani’s character too, though Tyler is still my favorite. Ani is a brilliant sixteen-year-old who is attending Yale. Her computer programming and gaming skills are even better than Tyler’s, but despite her intelligence, Ani has a hard time fitting in with the older kids at school. Ani also has a broken family and is dealing with an absent parent. I love that Costa made Ani Armenian, which is an ethnic group you don’t really see much of in YA literature. Her attraction to Tyler is reluctant at first, because she’s told she isn’t allowed to have contact with the game beta testers. But the two of them soon ditch the rules and begin secretly getting together. I liked the sweet but tentative relationship they have, and I thought the author really captured what it feels like to be in love for the first time.
I also enjoyed Tyler’s relationship with his brother Brandon. Even though Brandon is older, Tyler feels responsible for him. Brandon is trying to stay away from drugs, but he’s not having much luck. In spite of this, you can tell that he loves Tyler and wants to protect him. But things go downhill as the story progresses, and once Tyler discovers that Rick has been keeping secrets about the game, you can almost feel the family implode.
The author asks some moral questions that really make the reader think, questions that drive a wedge between Tyler and Ani, at least for a while. There are no easy answers here, and readers are sure to take sides when this dilemma is finally revealed. The ending suggests a possible sequel, although I haven’t heard of one. And although the cover was puzzling at first, I experienced an “ah ha” moment near the end when the scene on the cover comes to life. For readers looking for thrilling action combined with smart teen characters who are human enough to be awkward when it comes to the opposite sex, Playing Tyler is a must read.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. The quote above was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may be different in the finished book.