This Is Not a Game is by Walter Jon Williams, a New York Times bestselling author whose work has won the Nebula Award and been nominated for Hugo, World Fantasy, and Philip K. Dick Awards. This particular novel by Williams is the first book about Dagmar Shaw. It has two sequels, Deep State and The Fourth Wall, which was just released toward the end of last month.

In This Is Not a Game, readers are introduced to Dagmar Shaw, a woman in her thirties who has a job producing ARGs (alternate reality games) for one of her best friends from college, a multi-millionaire. It’s Dagmar’s job to write the story that goes with the game, which intersects with the real world despite being played by people in locations all over the globe. Players have to solve puzzles and at times they may have to make phone calls and ask questions to solve mysteries and move forward with the game. Sometimes they even have to go to specific locations just to carry out a task necessary for the game to proceed.

After a successful end to one of the ARGs she worked on, Dagmar decides to go to Bali for a mini vacation. When she stops in Indonesia, she finds her flight is canceled. The Indonesian economy has collapsed, and Dagmar is stranded there with only $180 US dollars while chaos and panic erupt around her. Charlie, her wealthy boss, hires some mercenaries to try to get her out of there. However, the mercenaries run into trouble getting Dagmar out, prompting her to put her gaming community on the task of combining their efforts and individual resources to get her home.

While more economies continue to have difficulties, one of Dagmar’s friends is murdered outside her office. Dagmar suspects that he was mistaken for Charlie and is starting to wonder if Charlie has some big secrets he’s hiding. Should Dagmar incorporate even more of the real world into her latest game by having the gamers use their combined knowledge to reveal some answers about Charlie?

This Is Not a Game is great geeky fun.  It’s usually described as a near future science fiction thriller, and it is largely a mystery/thriller with an emphasis on alternate reality gaming. This emphasis was largely why this novel appealed to me in the first place – I love books using gaming as an extension of the real world, such as The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks and The Last Hawk by Catherine Asaro (two of my favorites). This isn’t in quite the same category as those both because it is set on Earth and there is more of a huge gaming community than whole societies that have integrated gaming into their culture. However, it still fits the same basic mold with a game that ties in with the real world, and I really enjoyed that aspect of this novel.

While I found the first act of the book involving Dagmar’s time in Jakarta difficult to get into, I was pretty absorbed once the second act started. By the time I reached the third act, I couldn’t put the book down and stayed up later than I should have one night just to find out what happened. The early part of the book does have an important purpose and does tie in with the rest of the story. Because of that, I can definitely see why it was included, but I didn’t find it that compelling of an introduction to the story. Once Dagmar returned home and resumed her life working on games, I found it much more engaging, especially after she started meeting up with the other characters who were important and the mystery began.

Other than Dagmar, there were three characters who got at least some focus – three men she went to college with and played role playing games with throughout her time there. While they did game with other people, these four formed a central group who always ended up playing various games together. Three of them continued to work together at times, but one of them remained outside the group due to a working relationship gone bad with the two men and a romantic one that didn’t end well with Dagmar. There was an infodump section that explained their past, and while it initially bothered me to have a big section for “what happened previously,” I was glad I knew the details later. There were a few sections like this that felt a bit tacked on and unrelated, but I liked them better once the rest of the characters actually spent some time with Dagmar and it was apparent how they related. I liked their dynamic, and I thought Dagmar was a good female character. She was a very human character who seemed like a woman you’d know in real life. She wasn’t special or unusual; she was very realistic.

This Is Not a Game references everything from Pinky and the Brain to Dune to Discworld, and I especially liked the portrayal of the online gaming community. They were people who banded together around their common interest of gaming, yet they were more than just a bunch of people who played a game: they had very real connections that manifested in real life. When Dagmar was in trouble in Indonesia, they all worked together to help her because she was part of their group and they cared about what happened to her. Online communities connect people from all over the world who form very real friendships, and I was glad to see the power of these online communities working together.

This Is Not a Game took a little while to hook me, but it did completely succeed in entertaining me once it got to the meat of the story. I enjoyed how everything tied together in the end, the exciting plot, and Dagmar’s character. It got me to stay up late to finish it, and it definitely made me want to read the rest of the books about Dagmar Shaw.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.

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