A dazzling debut novel—at once a charming romance and a moving coming-of-age story—about what happens when a fourteen-year old boy pretends to seduce a girl to steal a copy of Playboy but then discovers she is his computer-loving soulmate.
Billy Marvin’s first love was a computer. Then he met Mary Zelinsky.
Do you remember your first love?
The Impossible Fortress begins with a magazine…The year is 1987 and Playboy has just published scandalous photographs of Vanna White, from the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune. For three teenage boys—Billy, Alf, and Clark—who are desperately uneducated in the ways of women, the magazine is somewhat of a Holy Grail: priceless beyond measure and impossible to attain. So, they hatch a plan to steal it.
The heist will be fraught with peril: a locked building, intrepid police officers, rusty fire escapes, leaps across rooftops, electronic alarm systems, and a hyperactive Shih Tzu named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Failed attempt after failed attempt leads them to a genius master plan—they’ll swipe the security code to Zelinsky’s convenience store by seducing the owner’s daughter, Mary Zelinsky. It becomes Billy’s mission to befriend her and get the information by any means necessary. But Mary isn’t your average teenage girl. She’s a computer loving, expert coder, already strides ahead of Billy in ability, with a wry sense of humor and a hidden, big heart. But what starts as a game to win Mary’s affection leaves Billy with a gut-wrenching choice: deceive the girl who may well be his first love or break a promise to his best friends.
Rating: 4 Stars
If you’ve got an interest in nerdy content along the lines of computers, video games, and 80’s music, The Impossible Fortress is a new title to read, recently released by Jason Rekulak, publisher of Quirk Books.
Billy and his friends are on a quest to get their hands on a copy of Playboy – typical 14 year old boy behavior, right? I laughed, wondering whether there were really kids that acted like this. It was fun and somewhat ludicrous, watching Billy, Alf, and Clark talk about their plan to not only get their hands on a copy of the magazine featuring nude photos of Vanna White, but to market it to their friends and make a boatload of cash. Their moneymaking schemes range from kind of silly (dressing as 20-something businessmen) to insane (pairing up with the “cool” senior turned potential criminal). I kind of wondered whether some were possible, but that ended up not bothering me so much.
One of these schemes is to sneak into the store and steal it. What do they need? The security code from the store, known by only two people: the owner and Mary, his daughter. Billy is chosen/volunteered/forced to attempt to get that information and in doing so begins to befriend her.
I was glad when Billy met with Mary, even though it was under suspect circumstances. She seemed to be the first person that listened to him regarding his interests in computers as something other than typing. It brought him out of his shell and made him start thinking about the choices he was making with his friends regarding the magazine scheme.
Mary herself was a character that we got to know primarily through her interactions through Billy and through the observations of others, which were not favorable in the least. It reminded me of the cruelty of teenagers. Alf in particular remarks on her body size more than once, so a warning here for fat shaming repeatedly. Mary, however, seems strong despite this and despite the emotional turmoil she’s not only experienced recently with a familial loss, but with the secret hinted at in the summary. That secret, which is only revealed towards the end, comes out of left field for me and is at least one of the things I’ll be looking for during a reread, to see if I can spot the clues about it.
The 80’s culture I alluded to at the beginning of the review is weaved in the story and doesn’t hit you too hard over the head. Some of the names were familiar, mostly the musicians on my part. As Billy tries to figure out a way to get the security code to the store, he and Mary mention different video games, computer languages, and dated references ( 5 1/4 discs, 20 MB harddrives) which made me chuckle more than once. Most of them were more fun than necessary, I think.
There were some slow portions that felt more like padding than necessary content, which contributed to the 4 star rating rather than a 5. When the novel was nearing the 80% point, most of the novel felt as though it had reached a conclusion but the author couldn’t quite let go and dragged things out more. While it did end up making sense and some pieces fell into place, I didn’t think it added anything to the book overall.
The coding at the beginning of the chapters was somewhat interesting, but as someone that has next to no experience with computers, it wasn’t a big attraction for me. Apparently the coding is actual coding that was originally intended to be fed into a Commodore 64 computer when the author wanted to make The Impossible Fortress (the game, not the book). There were little bits that hinted at the plot of the chapter, but I largely skimmed these portions.
I also had a problem with some of the language of the kids. There was not only fat shaming coming from Alf (previously mentioned), but Tyler, an older boy the main trio comes into contact with, uses some homophobic language at one point. It’s only one instance that I remember, but I’d say keep an eye out if that will bother you too much to read the rest of the book.
There’s a lot of great additional content to compliment this novel. There’s a Spotify playlist here. It’s chock full of 80’s classics that are from the era that The Impossible Fortress takes place in, including some bands specifically mentioned by Billy, Alf, and Clark.
There’s also the actual game The Impossible Fortress that can be played. While not 8-bit in reality, using up-to-date graphics the style takes on the look of what Billy and Mary’s game would have looked like. You can play through four levels of a simple yet tricky game to rescue the princess and get her to safety. Can you make it on the leader board? See what your high score is and let me know! As of writing this, my personal best is 10,582. Play the game here.
There’s a lot of life left for these characters to live, considering they are only fourteen years old, but this story was told and concluded well.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.