Divya Sharma is a queen. Or she is when she’s playing Reclaim the Sun, the year’s hottest online game. Divya—better known as popular streaming gamer D1V—regularly leads her #AngstArmada on quests through the game’s vast and gorgeous virtual universe. But for Divya, this is more than just a game. Out in the real world, she’s trading her rising-star status for sponsorships to help her struggling single mom pay the rent.
Gaming is basically Aaron Jericho’s entire life. Much to his mother’s frustration, Aaron has zero interest in becoming a doctor like her, and spends his free time writing games for a local developer. At least he can escape into Reclaim the Sun—and with a trillion worlds to explore, disappearing should be easy. But to his surprise, he somehow ends up on the same remote planet as celebrity gamer D1V.
At home, Divya and Aaron grapple with their problems alone, but in the game, they have each other to face infinite new worlds…and the growing legion of trolls populating them. Soon the virtual harassment seeps into reality when a group called the Vox Populi begin launching real-world doxxing campaigns, threatening Aaron’s dreams and Divya’s actual life. The online trolls think they can drive her out of the game, but everything and everyone Divya cares about is on the line…
And she isn’t going down without a fight.
I’ve followed Eric Smith’s career for a while so I was really tickled to see Don’t Read the Comments (which originally had a different title) out in the world. Took me a bit to read the galley – because life – but I plopped down last night and read the whole thing start to finish. This is a really great YA fiction about a professional gamer girl who is targeted by an organized troll squad (why the industry even entertains these bozos is beyond me) because she’s female and brown who meets a non-pro gamer boy who wants to write stories for video games and runs into problems with an indie game-maker who takes advantage of him. Divya and Aaron have really cute chat interactions but also great interactions with their IRL friends, Rebekah and Ryan. They also have some real-world problems to deal with as teens. Divya’s dad has walked out on her and her mom and it’s her sponsorships and sale of gaming gear she’s been comped that are helping pay the bills. Aaron’s parents are really pushing for him to be pre-med to take over the family practice and low-key threatening to not pay for college if he doesn’t follow that path. The one thing I wish this book did was have Divya and Aaron bonding a bit more over non-gaming stuff, because I feel like the parents and how the teens deal with the parent stuff isn’t quite as developed as the gaming plot. It’s a minor thing because the rest of the book is really good.
Eric very explicitly lays out the problems of sexual harassment, racism, abuse, trolling, doxxing, toxic dudes, IP and copyright infringement, and gatekeeping which are rampant in the industry. There are some really scary moments – such as when Divya’s mom is attacked by trolls at her place of work – and some bros pull the “I was nice to you why won’t you put out” at a pizza parlor. There’s also some description of Rebekah’s previous assault that happened before the book opens, but is used by the trolls to terrorize her. So just a brief content warning that Eric doesn’t soft-ball the scary bits, he just doesn’t describe them graphically.
Now, I’m not a gamer – the last actual video game I played was Myst III…or IV? Which one was Riven? on a PC running Windows 98, I’m an Old, lol – so it took me a little bit to adjust to the descriptions of in-game play for the MMORPG that Divya streams on the “Glitch” platform. But I got into it after a while and Angst Armada that has Divya’s back really sounds like fun, so don’t worry if you’re not a gamer. And, not gonna lie, I did a little squeal when Desi Geek Girls – a rad podcast run by Preeti Chhibber and Swapna Krishna – got name-checked late in the book.
Now I’m going to have a minor spoiler here, so if you want to stop reading here, heyo, Don’t Read the Comments is out now, you can buy it! Thanks for reading!
OK. The resolutions to the troll plot and trash game developer plot are both well-done (although if we actually got to see some real fallout for the bad actors in those plots in the form of lost jobs, lost investors, etc that would have been A+ but overall, yes, good plot climaxes). However, in the falling action of the book Divya decides to stop gaming professionally. She gives up her sponsorships, sells a lot of her gear, and so on so she and her mom are good for the financial short-term. And that made me a little sad. That even though she stood up to the trolls and “won,” the fun that she and Rebekah had with the Angst Armada has been ruined – what the trolls couldn’t stand was that Divya was engaging to fans because she had fun playing the game and made sure that others were having fun, too, and god forbid people love something unironically – and she and Rebekah are really going to have to rebuild their security and their peace-of-mind. It’s a very real-world outcome to this story. Don’t Read the Comments is not a fantasy where the Bad Guys are caught, Divya finds a Cute Guy, and every thing magically returns to normal like it had before the trolls and the doxxing. We are left with an “everyone is doing OK for now” where everyone is processing their trauma and doing their best. I think it really takes some bravery to write an ending like this, where it is not completely satisfying, because we readers do so want good things for characters we root for. And we root so hard for Divya and Aaron to dominate the bad guys so completely that they have to use dial-up to get on the Internet for the rest of their lives. So hats off to Eric for taking the risk with this ending. (And yes, I’m making a hat joke because he’s rarely without his flat cap, haha.)
Don’t Read the Comments has been out since January, you can pick it up wherever books are sold.
Dear FTC: I read a galley of this book we got at my store from the publisher.