I didn’t know what to expect when Inkshares reached out to me about reviewing Prescott Harvey’s debut novel In Beta. It sounded something that was right up my alley, with the setting being in the 90’s and the main characters being video game nerds. You would think I would dive right into this without a second thought. I did get a bit nervous that this was going to rely heavily on 90’s pop culture to the point that it starts jamming them down your throat a la Ready Player Two style. I’m pleased to say that In Beta does not do that and is a story that I highly enjoyed. The mystery is intriguing, I really enjoy the characters, and the twist was definitely one that got me to continue reading.
Keeping this spoiler free the story is about two small town geeks living in a rural Washington state town called Bickelton in 1993. Jay (our main character) and his best friend Colin are trying to survive their senior year of high school but things take a turn. On his birthday Jay receives a game magazine with a demo disk containing a game called The Build. While playing around with it Jay discovers that the game can alter his surroundings in real life. He can give himself money, a new car, and even alter the weather around him. As he keeps playing things get weird. The girl who asked him to prom has a mental breakdown and starts acting strange. People freeze up when he mentions the game in detail and one of his friends goes missing. A mystery is afoot and it leads to Jay finding out the truth not just about the game, but his whole world in general.
I really like the character of Jay in this story. It was refreshing to see a character with some faults and who isn’t a total creep like another protagonist I know of. Jay has one goal in mind, to get out of town and live his life. Being a high school kid he also dreams of going to college, he wants to do things with his life that Bickleton just can’t provide. He isn’t perfect and when he realizes what The Build can do for him he does max out his stats and shows off whenever he can, but he isn’t mean for the sake of being mean. He does say he has a bit of a temper but doesn’t lash out for no good reason. The side characters also shine especially Liz. Liz is the most popular girl in school and the driving force of the story. When she suffers a breakdown in front of the whole school her attitude changes and she reveals what exactly is going on. You go from hating her to loving her as things get revealed and she’s at the center of it all.
My one big criticism of the book is that it takes a while for things to really get interesting. Of course I had this problem with Ready Player Two (RP2) when the plot really started halfway through the book. The story is going in the early pages and it’s not all exposition like RP2, but I did take some breaks more in the early chapters. Of course my wishes came true around page 161 when the book takes it from 2nd gear to 6th in the span of a few pages. For me the first half of the book was a little slow but that isn’t a bad thing. Harvey writes his chapters in short spurts which makes taking a little break easier than going through a 15 plus page chapter. When things did start to get going and more mysteries were being revealed I went from “Yeah I can read a few chapters before bed,” to “Nope lets take this to the end!”
Speaking of mysteries you know something is wrong with the world Jay lives in a few chapters in. The first thing where you get the feeling that things aren’t right is when the guidance counselor tells Jay that their high school has a 0% college acceptance rate. Jay is trying to get into college but with his own counselor telling him to suck up to Jeremy (the school bully) and prepare for a dead end job isn’t what a guidance counselor does. Also for those who are big on 90’s boy bands may notice a line that Jay’s mom says that’s factually incorrect. Of course there is a reason why these things are like this but that goes into spoiler territory. It’s little bits like that when a big reveal happens you go, “Ohhhh THAT makes sense now.” The 90’s references in this book are much more subtle and less in your face like RP2. With RP2 I got annoyed with certain references and how many there were but with In Beta the references are just that, references. No reference outstays its welcome and there’s just enough of them to get a kick out of it.
All in all I would highly recommend In Beta for those who want a story with some nostalgia sprinkled in and some heavy themes on what it means to be alive. It’s a fun read and while the beginning is a tad slow, the pay off at the end is worth it.