Jamie Russell, Invasion (SkyWake #1), Walker Books Australia, March 2021, 304 pp., RRP $14.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781406397512
You were right. I’m not a leader and we’re not a crack military team. It was fun while we were playing in our bedrooms with our headsets on. But this is something else.
Fifteen-year-old gamer Casey Hendersen and her eleven year old brother Pete are at a London Mall to meet up with her team, the Ghost Reapers, for the first ever SkyWake tournament. All the best SkyWake gamers are there to compete, and the event organisers have really gone all out. They’ve even got Red Eye cosplayers roaming all over the venue with weapons from the game that look almost real. The forcefield that suddenly closes in around the London venue, however, is very real. And those cosplayers are very definitely really shooting real plasma weapons.
Then kids start disappearing, including Casey’s little brother, and Casey and the Ghost Reapers have to figure out how to deal with an alien invasion that looks scarily like the game of SkyWake come to life if she’s going to find Pete and save him.
Invasion dives straight in and keeps the events moving at a gripping pace right up to the cliff-hanger ending. The tension of the dramatic action is balanced out with moments of humour and a surprisingly deft emotional depth that never drags. The teenage and child characters have to face moral and physical choices in the heat of the moment that lend a weight to the physical danger they find themselves in. Their actions are thrown into contrast with the human soldiers who manage to infiltrate the alien forcefield.
Another layer is added through the chapters that go back to significant moments that Casey remembers with her father, who was a gamer himself, and a bomb disposal expert with the British armed forces. He died disarming an IED in Kabul, and his death and the circumstances around it mean that Casey in particular has an added awareness of the stakes involved in their current situation that would be hard to deliver in a book where the author has, so far, been careful to avoid anything fatal happening to the younger characters. It also gives a framework to some of the moral choices that Casey and Pete have to make.
Jamie Russell also brings in the question of the gap between identity online and in real life. Casey and her teammates are very close in their online world, but one of the running themes through the whole book is how much do they really know each other? The people who would follow her commands without question in the game don’t even know that she’s a girl in real life. How much does that knowledge change who she is, or how they react to her? How much does she know about them? She didn’t know that teammate Cheeze was in a wheelchair, or that Fish was going through a tough time with his parents’ divorce. I like the way that Russell addresses the question of identity, gender and ability without becoming too heavy handed about it.
Casey’s eleven-year-old brother, Pete, is an interesting contrast to Casey’s actions and reactions, and becomes the other viewpoint character in this book. I’m looking forward to seeing whether his character arcs from annoying, although understandable, little brother to something more in the future books of the series. I’ve certainly enjoyed seeing Casey stepping up in this one.
This action-packed start to the SkyWake series sits very solidly in the readership between Bajo and Hex’s Pixel Raiders series and Ready Player One. Gamers and fans of action from age eleven and up are going to love this one.
Reviewed by Emily Clarke