Despite the beefcake cover and corny back cover blurb, I was impressed with the first quarter of this book. I thought Ms. Lawrence had taken a difficult premise – the hero of a virtual reality video game come to life in a New Jersey store – and made it workable. I was even laughing out loud in a few places. Unfortunately, my enjoyment was short lived. Once the couple leave this world and go back into the realm of the video game, the book went downhill fast and never recovered.
Gwen Marlowe owns a virtual reality game shop in Ocean City, New Jersey. One morning she and her partner open shop to discover a dirty, fur-covered, snoring man in the VR booth who just happens to be a dead ringer for Vad, the hero of Tolemac Wars II, the hottest video game in town. Gwen assumes he’s just the model hired to attend the big gaming conference she organized and is sleeping off a bender. She goes along with his “act” of really being Vad, thinking he might be mentally unstable. But one thing leads to another and soon she is sucked back with Vad into the world of the Tolemac wars. Now she and Vad are on a quest to restore his honor, save some virtuous maidens from an evil king, and when that’s done, go off to find some hidden treasures. Along the way they’ll have sex a few times and believe themselves to have fallen in love. Now the only problem is, can they go back to New Jersey?
What passes for plot is just a series of quests and adventures that would probably do well as a video game, but they fail in the narrative form of a novel. In a video game, the goal is to fight as many evil doers and monsters as you can and find as much treasure as you can to earn points. You get to run through mazes, read treasure maps, puzzle through clues and wield your sword. The episodic plotting of Virtual Desire rendered the pacing inconsistent, and what’s worse, almost any one of Gwen and Vad’s adventures could have been deleted with no effect on the story. You know you’re in trouble when halfway through the book the hero asks, “Does this journey have an end?” and you are asking the same question.
As befits their video game existence, most of the characters are simply cardboard cutouts of real people. We have the evil villain (whose background is supposed to have been foreshadowed but actually comes out of nowhere), the virginal maidens, the once-noble, now corrupted king, and the vindictive councilmen who are out to discredit the hero for no better reason than that they can (to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, “they’re not bad, they’re just programmed that way”). Gwen and Vad are given some small degree of depth, but this seems irrelevant because they fall in love with each other primarily based on looks. Also damning is that the love scenes pile up in the closing chapters of the book, mostly coming at the most inappropriate times and places.
The fight scenes are many, and often illogical. How did the hero go from almost falling off a cliff to being in hand-to-hand combat with the villain? I’ll never know. Bows are drawn, swords are swung, but I got lost trying to figure out where everyone was and why they weren’t dead yet. One character actually has a gun that he brought from the real world into the game world, and yet he chooses never to fire it when it would have come in handy.
The author also tried too hard to be clever with her naming conventions. Almost every name used in the video game Tolemac Wars has a second meaning which is supposedly cleverly disguised, but really isn’t (and if Gwen had really been playing this game regularly, she should have figured it out). What was meant as something original seems derivative instead. When we finally reach the end of the book where the two characters figure out how to get back to Ocean City and decide to leave the game world, we’re left wondering just how they did it, and why they didn’t save everyone a whole lot of trouble and do it a whole lot sooner.