Every now and then a book comes along that takes me completely by surprise. Playing Tyler is one of those books. A quick read of the blurb :- Young man, combat simulator, game more than it seems; ‘Hmm so far, so Ender’s Game.’ Though the premise sounded interesting, I thought it would be a diverting but ultimately throwaway read. Far from it.
Playing Tyler is simply brilliant. The strength of the story and the depth of its characters far outstrips the basic, slightly science-fictional premise. Tyler is flying drone simulations for use in the Afghan War. As hinted in the blurb, they’re not always simulations. Obviously Orson Scott Card got there first, but in 2013, this is a startlingly real possibility. The best gamers are school-aged children. Could an unscrupulous agency recruit them for the war on terror?
This question opens a huge can of ethical worms, and these are what make the novel so strong. Tyler can’t see the problem. He’s a patriot. His Dad flew helicopters. He was hero; a man for Tyler to look up to. To emulate. Tyler has been diagnosed with ADHD, a pilot’s licence is almost an impossibility, but this way, can he realise his dream?
The flip-side of the coin is provided by Ani. Another gamer and computer genius. She was recruited, after an indiscretion, to build the system Tyler is using. Ani and Tyler are not supposed to have contact, but, as ever, love finds a way. Ani sees things a little differently from Tyler. Her dad too served in Afghanistan, but he returned a broken man and is now in prison, unable to control his temper. He is not a hero, merely a burden. Ani and Tyler hold two opposing viewpoints about the rights and wrongs of what they are being asked to do. It makes for a riveting debate.
The balance of Ani and Tyler’s relationship is pitch perfect. Their awkward interactions felt real; wholly believable. As did their interactions with their families, including Tyler’s drug dependent brother (neither Ani or Tyler have normal home lives). As the novel progresses, T L Costa asks difficult questions of her readers about the War on Terror: Collateral damage, accuracy of intelligence data, the use of private contracts in warfare and the breeding of insurgency. It’s all wonderfully vital stuff and, I think, terribly important for school age children to understand that warfare and aggression are rarely black and white. T L Costa goes to great lengths to highlight war’s ambiguities.
There has been some debate in the UK in recent months about Michael Gove’s assertion that it would be better to find your teenaged child reading Middlemarch rather than Twilight. Leaving aside the fact that the question is fatuous, I would suggest to him that whilst some children may enjoy 19th century literature, most will not. Yes you can make them read it, but what is the point? If they don’t want to read it, aren’t inspired by it, they’re not going to take anything home from it.
Playing Tyler on the other hand, is written expressly for them. Its language is (largely) their language. The characters’ emotional issues will resonate. It reveals, if not the truth about the complicated world in which they will soon be living, then the idea that the truth can be hard to find. It suggests that what is right can also be wrong. It prompts the reader to think about the world they live in just a little bit more carefully. It does all this whilst being thoroughly entertaining. Playing Tyler is YA fiction at its absolute best.
Many Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book for review.