Walking in Two Worlds, Wab Kinew (Penguin 978-0-7352-6900-2, $17.99, 281pp, hc) September 2021. Cover by Jay Soule | CHIPPEWAR.
Bagonegiizhigok ‘‘Bugz’’ Holiday lives on the Anishinaabe Reservation where she is a mostly happy, somewhat anxious, a little bit frustrated, but dearly loved teenager. With a handsome, athletically gifted older brother (who’s also a really great guy) capturing a lot of attention, Bugz buries her insecurities about her body and traditional dancing ability, and excels in the virtual world called the Floraverse. Using her specially designed avatar and an unprecedented gaming gift, Bugz dominates the environment, earning fans and money at an amazing rate. Even though she has some serious enemies there, Bugz is still in control in the Floraverse – she can be who she wants to be with no anxiety holding her back. But then things change, another player moves to the Rez, her brother gets terribly sick, and her Floraverse enemies grow in power. In Walking in Two Worlds, author Wab Kinew amps up the pressure on his eminently relatable protagonist until readers will fear that she’s about to break. How Bugz holds on is a triumph, but there will be losses as she tries to hold on to what really matters.
First and foremost, Kinew is to be lauded for the way he blends the technology of this near-future, post multiple-pandemic world, alongside issues such as sexism and racism into the narrative. Pandemic references will strike especially close to home, and when fellow-gamer Feng arrives from China to live with his aunt, a physician on the Rez, his background as a member of the persecuted Uyghur minority makes his concerns especially acute. It would appear that Bugz and Feng could easily find their way to friendship through a shared love of the Floraverse, but Feng is a member of Clan:LESS, a misogynistic group with a near maniacal leader who is determined to take down Bugz in the game. Feng is torn between the pals who stood by him through his trials in China and Bugz, who seems like a perfectly nice girl and not at all worthy of the hate his clan directs her way. Confrontations of the virtual kind became more ferocious as the tension escalates and Feng is forced to choose a side. Then things get real – very real – and Bugz finds herself considering just how much she will risk to save the place that has begun to feel like home.
Kinew does a solid job of making this novel a page-turner, and the action comes at a rapid pace, especially in the chapters set in the Floraverse. The narrative struggles when members of Clan:LESS physically arrive on the Rez, however, and plot holes appear about how they are able to accomplish certain acts and what happens to the people involved. (It takes a suspension of disbelief to imagine a bunch of strangers could just show up in such a close-knit community, commit acts of vandalism, and walk away with no one the wiser.) It’s also unclear why Bugz would care so much about the Floraverse when her brother’s situation is so dire; while it is a big part of her life, her family is always represented as the thing that matters most. One can’t help but think that she would simply walk away from everything else to spend time with them at this critical moment.
Overall, Walking in Two Worlds is exciting, inventive, and refreshing with its unique technology and perspectives. Feng is a particularly interesting character as he does not truly identify as Uyghur until late in the book, due to the brainwashing he suffered from the Chinese government that led him to hate his parents and deny his birth name and Muslim religion. As for Bugz, she is awesome! Her moments in the Floraverse and at home on the Rez make for some thoughtful recognition of just how complex a teenager’s world can be. Walking in Two Worlds is Wab Kinew’s first YA novel; he is certainly bringing a lot to the genre and will hopefully return with deeper narratives in the future.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the February 2022 issue of Locus.
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