Book Review: The Impossible Fortress

Recently, thanks to my job reviewing books for BookBrowse, I was able to read an advance copy of Jasok Rekulak's debut novel The Impossible Fortress. Since I only wind up giving it three stars, the BookBrowse editors didn't feel it was worth writing a lengthy review for the site, but I thought I would still post a review here. 

Set in the late 80s, The Impossible Fortress is a coming-of-age tale centered on Billy Marvin, a 14-year-old high school freshman and aspiring computer programmer. Billy is smart but doesn't try very hard in school, much to the chagrin of his single mother. His two misfit friends, Alf and Clark, don't help Billy stay on track very much, either. Case in point: when a famous Playboy cover featuring "America's Girl Next Door," Vanna White, appears on newsstands in the late spring of 1987, the boys hatch a get-rich-quick scheme to acquire this Holy Grail of nudie mags and Xerox them to sell. Their target is Zelinsky's, the neighborhood store owned by a grumpy old man named Sal who has no patience for shoplifters. After several failed attempts to acquire the magazine through legitimate means, the boys' only recourse is a heist of Mission Impossible proportions.

A neighborhood troublemaker and former Zeilnsky's employee suggests they climb up the Chinese restaurant next door and enter Zelinsky's through a small hatch on the roof. But in order for them to get away, they need the code to the security alarm. Billy volunteers to charm the code out of Zelinsky's teenage daughter Mary, but he has ulterior motives. Mary is the only other computer programmer he knows who can help him finish his game, The Impossible Fortress, for an upcoming competition. Plus, he might be falling in love with her. The question then becomes, who will he end up betraying: his friends, or his first love? 

It's an excellent concept with a great set-up, but in execution some things fall disappointingly flat. Rekulak may be a first-time novelist, but he's no stranger to publishing. As an editor at Quirk Books, he's edited Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As such, his storytelling prowess is evident, but it was the first-person narration that pulled me out of the novel a few too many times. The entire story is told through Billy's eyes, but for the first third of the book, I didn't feel like he was a genuine character. Instead he felt like just a generic young boy watching events unfold rather than a living, breathing 14-year-old boy. This contrast was especially stark in scenes with Alf and Clark, whose dialogue crackled and spark with the knuckle-headedness that only adolescent boys are capable of. 

While there is 80s nostalgia on display here, it never quite reaches the glorious, gleeful heights of Ready Player One, a book that feels very similar in tone and style to The Impossible Fortress. Rekulak has certainly done his research when it comes to computer programming, and is adept at making coding languages easy to understand for layman (read: me). Each chapter actually begins with a few lines of code that are straight out of a Commodore 64's programming language. But in some ways I felt that more time was spent on making the code and the fictional game sound more believable than the characters. 

I did like how The Impossible Fortress is a clever metaphor for not only Zelinsky's, but also the extremely private Catholic school that Mary attends, and also, for Billy, the vexing states of a young woman's heart. The final two-thirds of the book picked up considerably, and I was with it until almost the very end. A disappointing, unnecessary, and improbable final twist undid a lot of goodwill for me because it made a lot of the characters just seem stupid in retrospect. 

I gave this book three stars on BookBrowse, and those are three very solid stars. If you're a fan of 80s pop culture, video games, and adolescent romance, than this may still be worth your time.