On the particular day that Giannine has chosen to use her gift certificate, CPOC (Citizens to Protect Our Children) happens to be protesting in front of the Rasmussem Gaming Center and the remote operated, computer driven bus will "not allow a minor to disembark into a situation that might be hazardous," the polite and "only lightly metallic" voice tells her as she approaches her stop. Giannine outsmarts the bus, disembarks one stop later, claiming she is going to the art museum, muttering under her breath as she exits the bus, "Your mother was a toaster oven." As she enters the building, CPOC protesters accost her with signs that read "MAGIC = SATANISM," "VIOLENCE BEGETS VIOLENCE" and "INAPPROPRIATE FOR OUR CHILDREN," as well as quoting Bible verse at her, "complete with yeas and thous and wicked ones." The book ends with a page that reads, "If you've decided that this book and others like it are dangerous, clip along this line, glue this page to cardboard, and fasten onto a stick. Start your own protest demonstration!" Below the line reads, "Don't corrupt the minds of our children! Down with fantasy!" A pertinent premise almost a decade ago when Harry Potter and other fantasy novels for children (as well as games) were coming under attack, the argument against electronic games is still relevant, especially with the Supreme Court's recent ruling rejecting a ban on violent video games for children. However, Heir Apparent, the game Giannine decides to play, is very tame by today's standards. It could not be considered a "first person shooter game," and the violence is mostly limited to the Heir Apparent of the game being killed off by other characters hoping to gain the throne. However, there are a few battles from the ramparts of the castle and the beheading of the Barbarian king, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Giannine picks a Total Immersion game which requires her to be hooked up to all sorts of wires and connected to the computer while she relaxes on a couch and challenges her to last three days within the world of the game. During this time she must find a stolen treasure, save the kingdom from a barbarian invasion, make up a poem for the statue of St Bruce the Warrior Poet without having her head cut off, wrangle an army of ghosts, outsmart her jealous half-brothers and steal a crown from a vicious dragon. Of course, Giannine knows none of this at the start of the game and it is fascinating to watch the plot (of the game and the book) unfold as she plays her way through the story, trying to stay alive and unravel the connections between people and places that will unlock the challenges that she must face to reach the end of the game. Shortly after she starts the game in which she is named Janine St Jehan, a smelly sheep herder who discovers she is the illegitimate child of the dead king who named her heir to the throne, her game is interrupted. As she stands in the throne room meeting the Queen and her three half brothers, a white robed figure who turns out to be Nigel Rasmussem himself, floats out of the sky calling her real name. He warns her not to panic but also tells her that CPOC protesters have broken into the building and damaged some of the equipment leaving her in a compromised situation. Safety measures have been taken, but there is a risk of "fatal overload." Not only does Giannine have a limited amount actual of time to play through the three days of the game to completion, she must play to the end and win. Not wanting to cause her to panic, which would make completion of the game even more difficult, Rasmussem gives her a few words of advice, cryptically saying, as he floats upwards, "Kenric and Sister Mary Ursula don't work well together. And next time, don't forget the ring."
As Giannine says, "The point of Heir Apparent is to make good decisions, choose capable and trustworthy friends and advisers, and survive long enough to be crowned king." Watching her work her way through the game making discoveries about who to trust and who to manipulate is fascinating. As I read Heir Apparent for the second time, I kept having this flip-floppy-meta-feeling as I followed Giannine through the plot of the game while simultaneously thinking about the plot of the book, especially how the book would read if it was a straight fantasy novel without the conceit of the video game woven through it. It is as though Vivian Vande Veld has invited the reader into the writing process of Heir Apparent itself through the unfolding plot of the game Heir Apparent. As Giannine plays her way through the game she figure out how to get to key events that will allow the plot to take her, ultimately, to the throne room in three days time. Each time she makes her way farther into the plot, dying and starting over frequently, she carries with her knowledge from her previous game lives (as well as some knowledge from her actual life) and she must choose how to use this information while at the same time remembering that, in this newest incarnation of the game, she knows things she is not supposed to know. The more I write about Heir Apparent the more brilliant and genius I think Vande Velde is. And I haven't even told you about all of the amazing and intriguing plot points and characters that she creates. However, to do that would rob you of the surprise of discovery that makes this book even more fun to read.