Friday, January 28, 2022

"Cyber Squad" by A.K. Mocikat--Fiction Review

Strap in Obscurists, we’re going to a new world in today’s book—a virtual one—with A.K. Mocikat’s fast-paced sci-fi novel “Cyber Squad.”

A.K. Mocikat

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

“Cyber Squad” is a really fun book, especially compared to Mocikat’s “Behind Blue Eyes” series, which may be more intellectually engaging and is a kind of fun built upon complexity—but “Cyber Squad” is a more straightforward sort of fun. It’s a Lit-RPG that poses the concept of, “Hey, wouldn’t ‘The Matrix’ level authentic VR video games be fun?” As a gamer, to which I respond, “of course!” And then we set out on that adventure, with Mocikat whispering in the subtext nearly immediately, “but they might also nuke your brains.”

So, it’s an easy and engaging concept to get your mind around, and that’s what I mean by straightforward fun.

The supporting cast of characters, major and minor, see an upgrade in this book. Compared to my prior experience with her work, in this novel, Mocikat doesn’t reserve her talents in character voice to just her principles—i.e., the protagonist, the antagonist, and major supporting characters. I believed every minor character, no matter how quickly sketched, and they didn’t ever feel samey.

As always, Mocikat delivers many exciting fight scenes in this book, and because of the nature of this subgenre, she gets to shine in multiple different settings and modes of conflict. Since we’re talking about hyper-realistic video games, there can be a high fantasy sword and sorcery battle followed by a sci-fi shoot-em-up only a couple of pages later in the story.

What I don’t love about this book:

This is my third Mocikat book, and I just realized the true nightmare in these books that I’ve been missing all along—everyone seems to live at work. It’s worse than that! Everyone seems to want to live at work. This isn’t an element that I dislike in the novel per se; it just gives me the willies. The collapse of traditional society? Sure whatever. The rise of corporatocracy over democracy? Scary, but sure, got you. Living on the same campus as my boss—never!

“Cyber Squad” reminded me of exactly why I don’t like MMORPGs—and yes—I realize this is more of a me problem than the book’s problem. This has to do with who I am in a video game, which is, in my mind, the hero—because I have a hero complex. When I’m playing a game, I want to be immersed in the story of that game, which is difficult in multiplayer games because my suspension of disbelief keeps getting snapped by some mouth breather on a microphone ordering me about—on how best to do “a raid.” Maybe that makes me anti-social, but it also makes it my least favorite part of books like this—reading about people playing these sorts of games. I don’t get the appeal with first-hand experience, even less so experiencing them vicariously. 

I know—weird—in a book about characters playing super-realistic video games, my favorite parts were almost always when the characters interacted outside of that context. I did appreciate the whole testing angle to this story, though.

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Author’s Website:

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Our adventure begins with Kai also on an adventure of his own—in VR, that’s virtual reality for you Luddites. Anyway, Kai is playing a fantasy game with his guild that includes all of his closest online friends. They’re playing a defend the base situation against other teams of players, who end up ganging up on Kai’s guild. After a valiant struggle, Kai is killed.

In the game. Not in reality—that would be ridiculous.

In the real world, Kai’s life is humdrum and mean. His home sucks, his roommates suck, his job also sucks. But unlike his roommates, Kai has the ambition to better his circumstances—as a talented gamer, he hopes to snag a spot on one of the professional e-sports teams. 

He doesn’t get it, though, and takes it pretty hard. Uncertain about his future, and with nothing better to do with his time, Kai plays his favorite fantasy VR game, again with his friends. They set out on an in-game dungeon raid, and everything is just ducky—until the game glitches—bad. Suddenly the virtual monsters are hurting the players, for real, and are unkillable. With the guild leader incapacitated, Kai tries to rally his guildmates and does a fairly decent job, but the deck is stacked against him. As things are about to go from bad to worse, the Cyber Squad shows up, the best-of-the-best of them, and they save Kai and his friends.

Immediately after the experience, where Kai was saved by a beautiful woman on the Cyber Squad named Alice, he decides to apply at Helltek and join the Cyber Squad. He gets the job and begins his life as a low-level tester of new video games—one of which is a game called “Behind Blue Eyes” wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

Anyway, the Cyber Squad testers, even the low-level ones like Kai, work in teams, and Kai finds that he genuinely enjoys his coworkers and is talented at his new job. But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, he’d suspected, informed by recent experience, that VR isn’t as safe as it is purported to be, and boy is that an understatement. It isn’t long before it’s confirmed for Kai that their work at Helltek, on the various Cyber Squads, is a matter of life or death—or worse. 

He sticks with it, though, partly because he’s good at the job and likes his teammates. But probably mostly because he’s in love with the unattainable Alice. She’s unattainable because not only as one of the best-of-the-best, she rarely interacts with rookies, but she is also in a relationship with one of her teammates.

Kai does get a few moments with her, here and there, though, to twist the knife. Which makes it all the more impressive that he still manages to make some waves and surpass expectations at his new job. His team even wins a big tournament that they were the underdogs in and were expected to lose.

Having spent a lot of time at work in his new life, Kai feels a little guilty about letting his personal life and old online friends hang in the wind. So—not sensing a pattern—Kai makes time for his best friend and his old guild to go and do some good old-fashioned fantasy MMORPG playing.

He’s nearly killed by a rogue AI as a result.

As the only player, who is also in Cyber Squad, it falls on Kai to protect his guildmates from the glitching game and the malicious hacker until help can arrive. Alice and the top Cyber Squad do show up quickly, saving Kai at first, but Kai realizes it’s a trap and makes the sacrifice play to knock Alice out of the way of falling into it, which results in the trap springing on him.

In the end, Kai is just barely salvaged, in no small part through Alice’s efforts in VR and maybe even out of it in the real world. He gets promoted at work, and determined, he resolves to redouble his commitment to being part of Cyber Squad—again, in no small part because she is there.


The plot of any story pivots around its protagonist, and if it doesn’t, well, then it’s probably either a very avant-garde sort of story or just bad. So, naturally, the plot of “Cyber Squad” revolves around Kai’s central perspective, but Mocikat creates a world around him that develops and moves with and without his input. This isn’t to imply that this quality wasn’t present in her other stories that I’ve read, but I found myself noticing the mysteries far more in this book. Maybe it’s because I really only had Kai’s perspective—other than a few exceptions—on the world. 

When the story crescendoes into the showdown with the AI in VR—I had dozens of theories and questions, which I figure was the point because that last battle makes for a great cliffhanger.

But I think the yet unresolved story that I’m most interested in is why the really high-level cyber squad people seem—off. Like they’re too perfect to be real. Alice does and says certain things around Kai in the few scenes she is present, making her feel more alien than ethereal to me. I don’t mean this literally like she’s from outer space or something, but there is something uncanny about her that itches at the mind. 

Kai’s head over heels infatuation with her reminds me of another Mocikat character in a different story—with a penchant for placing the beloved on a pedestal. That said, what I appreciate most about him as a protagonist is he doesn’t make her his chief and all-consuming interest in life. He’s still a very ambitious person, with plans and goals of his own that happen to be modified by his near-obsession regarding that awesome lady who saved his skin that one time and that other time. It’s a very authentic sort of character tension, if not exactly the most endearing to me.

Parting thoughts:

On a very basic level, this book is a story about a guy starting a new job at a big fancy company. As a coincidence, when I started reading this novel—well, listening, let’s be honest—I had just got a new job at a much bigger financial institution than the one I had worked at previously.

So, I really related to Kai because of that shared new guy in a big new corporate world feeling. It especially hit home for me with the descriptions of the Helltek corporate buildings being essentially high-class labyrinths—I work in such a building now! There were even times when I would be listening to the book, on a break, lost down yet another gigantic featureless corridor while he in the story would be lost down a similar endless hallway.

It was a fun—if eerie experience. Sure, I haven’t been asked to do battle to the death with a rogue godlike AI—yet—but often, I felt close to the character as he was trying to make a good impression, learn his job, and fit in with the culture.

I don’t think I’ve ever had the stars line up like this before with a book where I was going through a similar life change as the protagonist while I was reading it. Anyway, this isn’t a profound set of parting thoughts this time, but I still wanted to share this experience because I had fun with it while it was happening, which was also my overall takeaway from this book.

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