As a longtime fan of Marie Lu—I bought her debut novel Legend on the day it released—I was excited and intrigued by the concept of Warcross, the first novel in this duology. It focuses on Emika Chen’s selection for and participation in the Warcross Championships, an international esports tournament for a game that sounds like a more technologically-advanced version of Overwatch. Yet Warcross, for its focus on innovative technology, was itself not very innovative at all, containing a lot of predictable elements ranging from the romance to the “plot twists” at the end.
With the release of Wildcard, I was interested to see the direction Emika’s story would take, and in many ways, Wildcard is a much better book, though it lacks the action-packed virtual reality sequences that make Warcross fun. Wildcard focuses much more on intrigue, taking Emika and the other members of the Phoenix Riders team on investigations and into thrillingly dangerous situations.
Spoilers for Warcross and Wildcard follow!
In the aftermath of the Warcross Championships, Emika now knows that the charismatic Warcross creator Hideo Tanaka has been developing the NeuroLink technology he invented to control the minds of the population in order to end crime after the devastating disappearance of his younger brother, Sasuke. She also knows that Sasuke is the hacker outlaw Zero, who—along with the underground organization the Blackcoats—is trying to stop Hideo from controlling the population.
With a price on Emika’s head in the Dark World of the NeuroLink, her only option for survival is to accept Sasuke’s offer of protection in exchange for helping him take down Hideo’s mind-controlling algorithm. But Sasuke and the Blackcoats have an agenda of their own, and as Emika races to end Hideo’s mind-controlling algorithm before the last update wipes out free will for good, she must uncover the truth behind the Blackcoats—or risk an even greater danger at their hands.
Warcross was overall predictable, culminating in the “big dramatic reveal” that Zero was Hideo’s younger brother—a reveal that readers could probably see coming from the moment Hideo mentioned his missing younger brother. As readers progress through Wildcard, though, the plot’s twists become less predictable and more compelling, aided by a slew of new characters who dent into Emika’s plans.
An especially interesting cast addition is Jax, a Blackcoat assassin largely tasked with guarding Emika from the headhunters chasing her. The scenes between Jax and Emika are excellent, and their chemistry leads to entertaining banter. Similarly, the relationship between Emika and her Phoenix Rider teammates—Asher, Hammie, Roshan, and former Rider Tremontaine—continues to develop in Wildcard in a satisfying way.
This novel also departs from Warcross’s predictability by adding far more mysteries for Emika to unravel: how to destroy Hideo’s mind-control algorithm, how Sasuke disappeared and became Zero, and the real motives of the Blackcoats. The answers she finds are far more thrilling than those of Warcross, in part due to the book’s aforementioned focus on the world outside of the VR game.
However, Wildcard really suffers when it comes to suspension of disbelief. The major conflict of the novel comes from the fact that ninety-eight percent of the population uses Hideo’s newest NeuroLink lenses, with the remaining two percent either having a beta version of the lenses or not using the NeuroLink at all. One of my greatest struggles as a sci-fi reader is believing this is something that could happen: many nations have anti-trust or competition laws in place to prevent monopolies, which is clearly what Hideo’s company has in the NeuroLink. While the ending heavily implies the world economy couldn’t function without the NeuroLink, there’s also no competition for virtual spaces created within the NeuroLink, and the NeuroLink itself can’t function outside of the framework built by Hideo’s company.
There’s also the troubling focus on Emika’s romantic relationship with Hideo. At the end of Warcross, it’s made clear that he had been lying to her basically the entire time he knew her, hiding his end goal of using the NeuroLink to remove certain parts of people’s free will as well as search for his missing brother. Throughout Wildcard, Emika finds the mind-controlling algorithm and Hideo’s use of it increasingly disturbing, first at the prospect of losing aspects of free will and then even further as she realizes some of the additional implications: Hideo is able to verbally control anyone, including heads of state. When the final update is made to the beta lenses—which Emika has, allowing her to act against Hideo—he’ll even be able to control her.
Yet this is never fully addressed in the novel, and more focus is put on how she loves him despite his flaws. (Deciding there’s no ethical problem with mind-controlling the entire population of humans on the planet would probably be a dealbreaker for most people.) The story positions Hideo as a tragic figure who only wants to get his baby brother back and find closure, failing to examine the fact that people literally die because of the algorithm, and Hideo is the one responsible for those deaths.
For readers who truly believe that love can overcome all, the issues of Hideo’s lack of ethical compass and Emika’s conclusions about the consequences he deserves will likely cause no problems, though readers who have more trouble suspending disbelief may also struggle with the consequences—or lack thereof—in Wildcard.
Feliza Casano writes about science fiction, manga, and other geeky media around the internet. She currently lives in Philadelphia, where she moderates two book clubs and lines her walls with stacks of books. Visit her online or follow her on Twitter @FelizaCasano.