Friday, April 8, 2022

"Cyber Squad Level 2" by A.K. Mocikat--Fiction Review

Today Obscurists, we’re returning to one of A.K. Mocikat’s worlds with “Cyber Squad Level 2.” Oh, boy, I hope nothing goes wrong in virtual reality this time. I’m sure Kai and his friends test awesome games, and everything is just grand in this cyberpunk LitRPG.

A.K. Mocikat

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

What I love about this book:

Things nearly immediately go wrong in virtual reality.

Anyway, I said something similar in my review of the prior “Cyber Squad” book in this series, but I’m even more impressed with Mocikat’s ensemble cast of characters in this novel. Sure, I’m engaged with what the protagonist is doing and his struggles with life, love, and work, but I really appreciate the depth Mocikat gives her supporting characters. I was genuinely worried when something terrible would happen to one of Kai’s coworkers.

The mystery of what is going on at Heltek intensifies nicely in the book. As the story progresses, it often feels like Kai is just an unfortunate critter caught in the most insidious pitcher plant in human history. He’s even tacitly aware of it, I think, but torn by a loyalty to his friends, his love of the job, and an unattainable girl—keep him rooted in the trap. It’s an interesting dilemma to watch a young man try to navigate.

Mocikat, per usual, shines in her intense and varied fight scenes in this action-packed sci-fi story. As that action was playing out in this novel, though, I became aware of how much I enjoyed her aesthetics for settings in this book. Kai and the rest of Cyber Squad work and play in some of the most exciting VR scenarios, which helps. It’s when shit starts going wrong, though, that the awesome environmental effects happen. A lot of the imagery, such as a sky ripping open, for example, has a biblical flavor of terror behind it that I enjoyed.

What I don’t love about this book:

I’m not sold on Kai’s main obsession—Alice. She seems nice enough, but when Kai works himself up into a good and frothy pout about not being with this woman whilst building yet another level to the pedestal he’s put her on—I often think, “kid, there are other girls. Nice ones too.” I think, though, why I don’t like these bits is more about me than any defect in the story because it uncomfortably reminds me of myself in my early twenties. The only part of this primarily one-sided attraction where I’m totally on Kai’s side in this endeavor is that I also don’t like Alice’s boyfriend because I hate bullies.

I wish I understood the evil AI’s motivations a little better other than it’s an evil AI and does evil AI stuff. It doesn’t quite fit my criterion for enjoying unknowable malicious entities because one would have to assume it’s at least made in part by human-designed systems. Sure, humans can be malicious dickheads for little to no reason, but for a supposedly vast machine intellect to be bad for—well, because it makes it happy, I guess, isn’t too satisfying an answer.

This preview is an Amazon Affiliate link; 
as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases

Author’s Website:

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

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Kai, fresh from the first novel and barely surviving his encounter with a malicious AI in the dark web of VR, returns to work at Heltek after a lengthy hospital stay—clearly a glutton for punishment. In any case, he gets a promotion, a swanky new apartment, and a brand spanking new VR implant. So there were some incentives, which were all gifted to him by one of the cofounders of Heltek, who seems to have taken a particular interest in Kai’s career.

Returning to his relatively new life as a game tester is complicated because he has a pretty advanced case of post-traumatic stress syndrome he’s trying to keep under wraps. The real reason he stays is that he’s decided that he’s not just crushing on the level ten superstar, Alice, but is in love with her. Scoring alone time with her is frustrating, to say the least, and any time he sees her, she always seems to do something a bit uncanny.

The hacker attack at the end of the last book gets investigated by the Feds, and Heltek “cooperates” by letting them interview Kai, who, like a good company boy, doesn’t tell them anything he doesn’t have to. Then Kai returns to his team and continues to test buggy games while having increasingly intense night terrors about what he’d lived through.

New and old friends try to help Kai get his mind off things and even start playing his favorite game together where, yes, he almost died twice, but he still logs on to play for some reason.

It takes a good portion of the novel, but Kai’s relationship—I guess we’ll call it—with Alice does progress by a fraction, and they even have a late-night chat about what Kai had experienced when she saved him—again. Her boyfriend nearly immediately afterward threatens to kill him, but such is Kai’s life.

Things come to a head when Kai and the rest of the squad he’s assigned are testing the final level of the new game they’d been testing since the beginning of the story, and things go badly wrong. Heltek has been breached by a hacker, an inside job, and the game Kai and his friends are testing is corrupted into a death trap they can’t escape, where death means death in the real world.

After surviving the harrowing adventure across the decaying virtual world, the heroes are almost all wiped out by the final boss when volunteers from the Alpha squad manage to log in to the crumbling simulation. Of course, they are led by Alice, and she manages to pull Kai’s ass out of the fire—again.

At the end of this second book, we’re led to consider that the owners of Heltek, the Hels, a brother-sister team, might not be all that altruistic after all. Their interest in Kai, and his progress up the levels of their corporation, seems to serve some long sought-after goal of their own.


“Cyber Squad Level 2,” like its predecessor, is a fast-moving novel, and it’s an exciting book. With less introducing and explaining to do, Mocikat is far freer to take us deeper into the world of her story. It’s a place equally sublime and dangerous—and I enjoyed vicariously experiencing it as Kai explored his new life.

While I wasn’t particularly won over by the romantic element in this particular Mocikat story, I enjoyed the banter and how all the other characters’ relationships grew and deepened.

There are some repeated elements, such as the reading of the menus and stats, that I found a little overdone. Also, Kai’s former fantasy wife, now Stan’s current fantasy wife, has the Scooby-Doo shifty villain eyes that nobody notices in every scene she’s in. She’s clearly set up for a future sub-plot or maybe even the primary plot, but you get that after the first time, she’s odd.

Parting thoughts:

I often find myself wondering about artificial intelligence—what it would be like and wouldn’t be like. There are probably far more sci-fi stories, like Mocikat’s, that take the stance “The Terminator” probably got it right—given half a chance, the first thing a god-like AI would do is wipe us out.

What digs at me about that concept is that maybe it smacks a little too much of our own violent biases. Just because people are warlike doesn’t mean that our creations have to be the same way. But to play devil’s advocate—maybe that’s precisely why the machines would turn on us. Our failings as a parent species to an artificial one, and they being a product of us, bakes in the stain of quick to violence, slow to empathy. 

In many robot or computer goes wrong stories—I often find myself considering if everyone involved in the plot were just a modicum better, not asking for sainthood, then maybe things would be better. I think this is why I loved commander Data so much as a kid and as a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” nerd. The idea is that maybe, with a little time, effort, and understanding, our mechanical progeny might represent our better natures instead of perfecting our more abominable qualities.

Or not, maybe not.

No comments:

Post a Comment