This tight little thriller makes a perfect summertime beach read, provided of course that anyone still reads at the beach anymore. Fortuna will not tax your intellect or change your understanding of the cosmos, but it will hook you early and keep you hooked, which is what we ask of our thrillers. A novel about an Internet game that grows unexpectedly sinister, the book provides a welcome twist on the familiar formula of ‘young innocent gets in over his head,’ even as it faithfully adheres to genre conventions.
Jason Lind is a mopey grad student at Stanford who hates his classes, his job, and his academic advisor. In this he is an all-purpose stand-in for unmotivated slackers the world over. What makes him stand out are his deficits: he lacks parents, his father having died several years earlier, and his mother long before that; he lacks a girlfriend, as the woman he’s pursuing is a shallow sorority girl who takes advantage of his considerable smarts; and he seems to lack all motivation to do anything much besides play online computer games. Predictably enough, he is not the most scintillating literary critter ever set to paper.
Jason is, however, quite talented at various forms of computer geekery, and inevitably this causes him to get caught up in Fortuna, an online computer game that has become a hugely successful fad—some would say obsession. The world of Fortuna is that of Renaissance Florence, complete with a meticulously detailed world controlled by the “five families”, based on historical clans such as the de Medicis. In this world, a player’s fate is decided through intrigue, bribery, opportunism, ruthlessness and luck—in the form of randomly-generated “Chance Algorithms”. In other words, it’s a lot like real life.
A player can choose to tread cautiously in this world, or act boldly, even recklessly. The rewards are significant, but so too are the risks. This game costs money, and many online transactions carry real-world costs, which is where things get interesting.
As Jason’s real-world life crumbles further, he becomes more enmeshed in the world of Fortuna. Assigned the role of a priest, Father Allesandro, he hears confessions, skims money out of the collection box and becomes unwillingly ensnared in a set of intrigues that grow increasingly complex and dangerous. Ironically, this make-believe world quickly grows far more engaging to the reader than the quotidian existence of a not-very-compelling grad student. In part this is due to the intriguingly complex and unpredictable world that Fortuna presents; in part, this is because of the flatness of the real-world characters.
First-time author Stevens moves the story along without unnecessary detours. He is at his best when building suspense and describing the virtual world of Fortuna, but character is not a strong suit. Jason is a fairly pedestrian type, and supporting players are defined in broad strokes: overwrought, bolshy Marco, plucky Paola, tetchy Dr. Bhattacharia. “There was something about Paola that always lifted his spirits” is a typical line that manages to be lazily expositional and vague at the same time. Intentionally or not, Jason’s online interactions are often more interesting than his offline ones.
Elsewhere, the prose is serviceable if unspectacular. “Apparently, death meant little to Mara. And why should that be a surprise? There were plenty of ways to die here. But the bishop’s death would mean a lot to the bishop himself.” Well, yes.
This is not a book to be read for the glittering prose or deep characters. As in most thrillers, the characters are defined by the plot—Jason is the kid who gets in over his head, Paola is the soft-hearted woman who likes to give him food and sex, Marco is the conspiracy-theorist buddy who warns him to be careful. Stocker and Beech are the villains, and we know this because everything they do is villainous. No reader should be surprised that just about every major character pops up with an undisclosed secret in the final pages of the book.
An area that the author does handle well is structure. Just over halfway through, Jason’s narrative breaks away to flash back several years and focus on another set of characters. This step is both unexpected and welcome. The author risks exposing too much here, and the ending is telegraphed to some extent. Still, he is skillful enough keep an extra twist or two in hand, so that even as the reader (well, this reader anyway) is feeling smug at having figured it all out, there are further surprises in store.
Ultimately, that is what this novel promises, and what it successfully delivers: a series of twists, surprises, revelations, complications. Proust it ain’t, and that’s just fine. Readers who have tired of Tom Clancy and his ilk are advised to give Fortuna a whirl. And then make a reservation for that bungalow on the beach.
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