The Moon Maze Game, by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes, Tor paperback, 2012.
Writing a review like this is unpleasant, but then again so was reading the book. I kept hoping it would focus and thrill. As a fourth entry in the Dream Park series, it rates much like the fourth entry of the Indiana Jones movies. It had a few cool ideas and brief appearance of a familiar face, but it was far weaker than the original three stories. There were many poor aspects of the tale, but it just reminds this reader of stories I haven’t even reread in ten years, and I remember Alex, Tony, and Mary-em far better than anyone in the MMG a week later.
- For the first, the cover is static and none of the people or props are anything but generic SF future. The most recent cover for Dream Park even features a white dragon, a bit out of place for a south Pacific setting. Better covers give some kind of hook into character, setting, or an action scene to draw you into the story. This cover looks like some kind of train station and no characters are particularly identifiable. One great character has a mobility pod for her handicaps and a major role in several major sections, but wasn’t on the cover. There were some very tense places, scenes that could have caught attention on a cover without spoiling the plot. Instead we get a station that says nothing about the conflict or events of the story.
Good Dream Park Covers, with action and setting:
With these two covers, we want to know what happens next, that’s the most important part of storytelling. The swordswoman with the men hunkering down, gives a different view from the usual cover.
Now, I know the authors have little to no influence over the covers, unless they are selfpubbed.
- But the cover is one of the best hooks for a new reader, but this third cover could be almost any future SF.
The story has people of multiple ethnic, gender, ableism and what is on the cover? Just whites. The only hint of the game setting is the railing and the lamp, even though the game setting is supposed to be immersive. The cover fails on every level. Now many covers fail, but that is not a good sign.
- Now the biggest problem is plot, all the other problems are a consequences of errors there. Like the other Dream park stories, the world-building before we get to the game is dense, but the rest of the story feels rushed and sketchy. Subplots and characters introduced are dropped and the IFGS game become nearly irrelevant to the terrorist-kidnappers plot. The GM shows more personality in flashbacks and there seems to be no Loremasters. A grudge is a chimera. A strongly implied subplot of Lunar freedom, ala Moon is a Harsh Mistress, is really wasted space that is meaningless, when almost all conflict once the game starts is related to the kidnappers. (who are only threats because of their ruthlessness and not their competence) The vanity celebrities in the story fizzle instead of adding tension or sympathy. Since characters’ goals and actions are what grab the readers’ sympathy, fear, and thrill, putting too much emphasis on world building makes a boring story. The story felt like it was only to fill in events between Dream Park and much later books in that universe. The Moon Maze Game is so ruined by the political kidnapping, that there is no setting, no immersion.
You never get much feel for the game layer of the plot and most personal plots are staked through the heart too. The three overlapping levels of story never coalesce, unlike the earlier books.
- The book is simply too short to do justice to all the characters and plots introduced. There were some good scenes and a very few decent characters, but reading it was like reading a detailed outline instead of a dramatic epic. The most promising characters were only in brief sequences, and several central characters never quite came to life. The game becomes so much window dressing that there is almost no awe and wonder, no immersion, no tension to solve the game as the players get extra help so they can escape the criminals. One subplot ends in a thud after not being mentioned for a couple hundred pages.
Now my review went on rather longer than I expected. If you want a kidnapping/escape story, it’s okay, but this is not really a Dream Park Novel. Read the other three: Dream Park, California Voodoo Game, and Barsoom Project. Read this one only if you want to meet Alex Griffin’s daughter in law (her sparse subplot could have carried the story better than the kidnapping).
Series relative reviews:
Dream Park 9.5 of 10
California Voodoo Game 9.0
Barsoom Project 8.5
Moon Maze Game 6.7
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