Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The Ruby Code

Khoury, Jessica. The Ruby Code
June 6, 2023 by Scholastic Press 
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Ash lives a bit in the future, when Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, and delivery drones are widespread. His mother, an artist, has struggled to get by since the death of his father, and the two are currently living with her boyfriend, Luke, who is wealthy but abusive. Ash saves up his money to buy one hour in a full immersion Virtual Reality arcade, but just as he is about to enter, he sees a man being beat up by thugs. Wanting to save the man, he orders a delivery drone to pick up one of the thug's fancy jet bikes, thereby distracting the group. He helps the man, Owen, and wants to get him to a hospital, but he refuses. Instead, Owen gives him a box with a golden coin in it. This is a video game called The Glass Realm, something that his best friend Hakeem's sister plays. He feels foolish that he spent his life savings to save the guy, but when he finds out later that the man is found shot dead on a Skytrain, he is also very sad. He starts to play the game, and finds that it is a bit different from the widely available version. He plays so much that Hakeem worries that Ash is turning into a VR "zombie", but there's something more to the game. We see events unfolding from the perspective of Ruby, a Non Player Character, who hears a Voice in her head and is eventually able to break away from the game. When Ash meets her in the shop she runs, the two both realize that they can do more in the game than is usually possible, and strike up a friendship. Ruby is an awesome fighter, but it turns out that she is much, much more. Her connection to the man who gave Ash the game goes deeper than he could expect, and Ash's involvement with Ruby brings him to the attention of dangerous criminals who want to use Ruby for horrific military uses to try to take over the world! Will Ash and Ruby be able to figure out a way to both save the world and keep Ruby's humanity?
Strengths: This had some twists and turns that I don't want to ruin. The technology rich society was well developed, and I like that it wasn't portrayed as entirely evil. Hakeem's mother is very concerned that the boys don't turn into VR "zombies", and people are certainly very invested in the VR headsets, but there are some good things, even though Autocabs could run you right over! There are some fantastic chase scenes, and one where Ash rides a jetbike on train rails, even though he is afraid of heights. There is some clever writing as well, like this description of a character (from the E ARC): "He's wearing a black turtleneck and black pants... I wonder if anyone ever told him that's, like, Basic Villain Outfit Number 1." We get to explore some pretty deep ideas about humanity and emotion in Artificial Intelligence, but in a very personal way, so it never bogs down the story. It's a longer book, but everything is wrapped up nicely at the end, although there is a sense of the world continuing after we close the book, which I rather liked. Well done. 
Weaknesses: Reluctant readers might not pick this up because of the length. It could have been streamlined a little bit. Khoury seems to write mainly Young Adult; for middle grade I would have probably shortened the plot that involved the evil boyfriend. 
What I really think: This had a completely different plot from Zhao's Last Gamer Standing, Ross' Game Over and Mancusi's Dragon Ops, but a similar feel. This struck me a bit like Vande Velde's Heir Apparent (2002), which has fallen apart and is long gone from my library shelves, but really stuck with me. This is the sort of book I can see readers picking up at a Scholastic book fair and keeping forever because it just resonated with them so deeply. I can see myself having bought it at the insistence of my sci fi/fantasy loving friends, and liking it more than I thought I would. Definitely purchasing. 

Grabenstein, Chris. Evil Genius: The Smartes Kid in the Universe #2
May 1, 2023 by Random House Children's Books
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

Jake, who managed to snarf down a lot of Coach Farooqi's Ingestible Knowledge jelly beans in The Smartest Kid in the Universe and to use the incredible knowledge gained from them to thwart evil doers in Genius Camp, has a problem. He feels like his super smarts are fading, and he doesn't want to go back to the boring obscurity of his old life. He tells his mother to go to Disney World with his sister without him, while he has more assessments done by Marie Double at the consortium. Coach Farooqi, who might be the most disorganized scientist ever, hasn't been completely successful in replicating the beans, so if Jake's abilities disappear, he's in trouble. Of course, with 8th grade starting, Jake as well as his friend Kojo also have to worry about the new school year. Thanks to friend Grace Garcia, whose family treasures were taken back from the evil Hubert Huxley and his family, the school has been renovated, and the 8 million dollar Red Lion jewel is on display to remind people who funded the changes. Since Jake put together the security system, it should be impenetrable, but that doesn't stop people from trying. When Farooqi's newest batch of trial IK beans are stolen, clues point to the evil Zane Zinkle, who was unhappy that Jake's intelligence passed his own. Of course, with Hubert at their school now, since his father is in jail, suspicion falls on his as well. When it comes to light that Grace's ancestors hid an even bigger treasure, the three pound, orange la Gran Calabaza diamond, everyone turns their attention to finding it. Hubert's grandmother enlists Jake's help anonymously, figuring that once it is found, she will steal it. When the Consortium takes a turn to the dark side, Jake starts to question everything he knows. Will he be able to keep the diamond safe, determine if his super smarts will stay, AND find out which organizations are good, and which are evil? 

Like Ponti's City Spies or Gibbs' Spy School books, this is full of improbably scenarios that will delight young readers who think it is perfectly possible that they will lie to their parents and sneak off on dangerous international spy missions! It offers worthy adveraries of varying abilities, bumbling adults who could be so much more helpful, and a quest that only our protagonist can solve. There's lots of action and adventure, and the short chapters will mean that the pages are turned very quickly. 

Jake is an engaging Every Kid who finds himself in an unusual situation. He is enjoying his new life, and fears that he might not be up to his tasks if the IK beans wear off. This anxiety about capabilites is something that many middle grade readers feel, if only abou their ability to survive dodge ball, so it makes Jake's unlikely exploits seem relatable. Kojo is a fun sidekick, but I wonder if any middle grade readers will get his classic television references (Kojak?McGyver? Maybe it will spark some research.)

James Patterson's imprint is filled with books with strong kid appeal, and Grabenstein is one of the strongest writers in his stable, with his Jacky Ha-Ha series, Dog Crew books, and fantastic Wonderland Motel adventures. The Smartest Kid in the Universe is a smart purchase for fun summer reading. 

I do share Mr. Buxton's view that Jake isn't a great spy, and there are too many security lapses to be feasible. Also, if Coach Farooqi really lost that much scientific data on the jelly beans and had such bad security on his apartment, would anyone trust him to invent anything? 

1 comment:

  1. I will definitely be reading THE RUBY CODE. (I'm on Team Sci Fi/ Fantasy, here.) I may read it alongside Katie Zhao's LAST GAMER STANDING, just to experience the contrast you spoke of. Thanks for helping me pick at least 2 of my summer reads!