Review: Armada

I confess I’ve struggled to articulate my thoughts on Ernest Cline’s Armada. As the tricky second book following a blockbuster like Ready Player One, the temptation for this reviewer is to throw down comparisons in an endless series of bullets: Ready Player One was like this, but Armada‘s like this, which means XYZ.

That’s unfair. But not entirely. Armada isn’t related story-wise to RPO, and yet the two books overlap in many ways. Both have a teen male protagonist whose expertise in video games is the spine of the story. Both are rich with pop-culture references anchoring the story firmly in our world. It almost feels as if both books have a common ancestor, an ur-plot in Cline’s head. More likely Cline’s simply projecting his own experiences, as all authors do to some extent, and these two lenses have much the same prescription.

If I try to forget RPO exists, how do I feel about Armada?

The plot is captivating and straightforward: on page one our hero, Zack, looks out of his classroom window to see a UFO darting across the sky. What’s more, it’s a craft identical to the ones he sees and battles in a video game – called Armada. How is that possible? Is it real, or is he hallucinating? Either answer signals trouble, which subsequently arrives at a pace speedy enough to keep me turning the 350 pages. It’s exciting, thrilling and eventful. It feels almost like the novelisation of a screenplay (which is handy, as the movie rights were sold for seven figures).

It also feels aimed at a specific audience: teenage boys who might see themselves in Zack’s place. It’s a classic coming-of-age story, complete with absent father and a school bully.

In that sense it’s a disappointment. I have nothing against these sorts of stories at all. I suppose I was hoping for something a little different, in the way that Ready Player One felt different. But ignoring RPO, as I claimed I was: it’s a great story and it’ll make a watchable brain-off blockbuster movie. It has its faults, though: not least the massive implausibility of <spoiler>.

Aside from that, some lesser but important characters lack any depth: you can’t make an emotional connection to someone who’s little more than a checkbox. “Oh, we need one of them, and one of them…”

Also, the pop-culture references tend on occasion towards the gratuitous. The bickering is real enough: characters bitch and joke about real-world fictional characters just as we would. Sometimes it feels shoe-horned in, possibly disguising the lack of character depth. I have fewer reservations about the unlikeliness of the characters having sufficient composure under extreme stress to wisecrack quite as coherently as they do: hey, that’s fiction for you. Gibbering and damp trousers would not be the average teen boy’s idea of wish fulfilment.

There is one particular scene late in the book in which certain real-world people “guest star” as characters. I am not a huge fan in general and in this case I was overwhelmed by the aroma of cheese. For me, this device bumps up against a line: I understand it, and it makes sense in context, but… just no. I sincerely hope it doesn’t appear in the film, as all tension in that scene will evaporate in laughter (at least in UK cinemas).

These criticisms are niggles rather than chuck-the-book-across-the-room-isms, and possibly amplified by my own expectations after Ready Player One. This was always going to be Cline’s problem: follow that. People of a certain age (hello!) who enjoyed revisiting the minutiae of 80s video games and films in Ready Player One, who can nod sagely at discussions of Pac-Man tactics and mullets, might have anticipated and wanted another spin around the Pole Position track.

Armada is not that, and yet it’s too similar to Ready Player One to escape comparison, and that might ultimately be its biggest problem. JK Rowling wisely keeps well away from magic with her non-Hogwarts books, and in Armada Ernest Cline perhaps drifts too close to Ready Player One for safety.

Still, I’m sure he’s worrying all the way to the bank.

The Casual Journalist

The Register has a short piece on the ebook formatting problems of JK Rowling’s new book The Casual Vacancy. It’s a shame the quality control wasn’t up to much for what would undoubtedly be a highly popular ebook.

But what really irks me in the article is this comment:

But as some have noted, the steep cost of the ebook shouldn’t be blamed on Rowling: It’s the taxman’s fault in Brussels.

Many publications, including printed books, maps and charts, magazines and newspapers, are zero-rated, but ebooks are classified differently because they are subjected to VAT.

Let’s pick this apart.

First, as one of the commenters on the article said, ebooks aren’t classified differently because they’re subject to VAT: they’re subject to VAT because they’re classified differently. Rightly or wrongly (wrongly, in my view) ebooks aren’t classified the same as printed books, which are exempt from VAT. This wrinkle can legitimately be blamed on the hypothetical Brussels taxman.

OK, so how much of the £11.99 Amazon currently charges for the book is VAT?

Amazon’s European tentacle is registered in Luxembourg, which means Amazon charges customers Luxembourg’s VAT rates. For ebooks, this is 3%. When I self-publish through Amazon I set the price excluding VAT: I poke at a calculator to work out how to make the number displayed by Amazon, which includes VAT, be the price I actually want people to pay.

Without the dastardly taxman in Brussels imposing VAT, The Register’s correspondent would have to pay the significantly cheaper price of… £11.64. Why, with that 35p saving he could buy almost… something.

And even setting aside the VAT issue, you couldn’t blame the ebook’s high price on Rowling. She’s not the publisher. I dare say the contract she has with her publisher is more to her favour than most traditionally published writers enjoy — I wonder if she receives a better royalty rate than the standard miserly amount? — but I don’t believe she’s allowed to set the price of her books.

Incidentally, Amazon is currently discounting the hardback version of The Casual Vacancy from £20.00 to £9.00. The ebook version currently costs £2.99 more than the hardback.

That’s what The Register should be complaining about.