|Julie Kenner's latest novel has a catchy title, but it's not entirely
appropriate. The Matrix (one, two or three) is not the work that came to mind as I made my way through this stomach-churning quest. With an online game spilling into reality and puzzles that must be solved
before poison takes effect, it's more Spy Kids meets 24 meets Rule of Four, with a strong dash of Chick Lit's favorite foot fetish thrown in. The Manolos, you see, aren't purely decorative.
Jennifer Crane watched when her roommate's life was turned upside
down as she raced to avoid certain death. She never expected to be
flung into the same situation. She's an aspiring actress with a Julie-
Andrews voice, not a code cracker. But when Jennifer receives an odd
little e-mail from playsurvivewin.com, an online game revolving
around a hunter, a target and a protector, she knows the chase is on.
Some criminal mastermind has transposed the game from the virtual
world to the real one. Either refusing to play or going for outside
help means game over - in the most permanent sense. Unfortunately,
failing to win also means the same thing.
The game's puppet master has assigned Jennifer to protect Devlin
Brady. A former child actor turned FBI agent, he helped Jennifer's
roommate when she was in the same jam. Since then, he has sunk into a
deep depression. Soon enough, the two of them are sprinting around
New York City, trying to make sense of cryptic messages involving
I expected something more steamy, but the few love scenes take place
behind closed doors, and what little sexual tension there is quickly
dissipates as soon as Jennifer and Devlin chase after the next clue.
Watching them put their heads together to outwit the hunter
nevertheless went some way in reassuring me that their relationship
is on solid grounds.
Very often in face-paced novels like this one, character development
gets sacrificed for action and adventure. Not so with Jennifer and
Devlin. He shakes off the guilt he has been feeling after shooting
down his dirty partner; she vows to become as proactive in pursuing
her Broadway career as she is when solving clues. Nothing
groundbreaking or outstanding here (heroines who discover their
secret depths are as ubiquitous as tortured FBI heroes), and yet
Jennifer's and Devlin's inner conflict make them into characters
whose survival I actually cared for.
I was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed solving the clues.
They were accessible for someone (like myself) who hums the
occasional Broadway tune without being a big buff, but also difficult
enough to take the characters' task serious. More importantly, the
solutions never seemed contrived or outrageous - even when they
depended on the Manolos. And I must confess that though I'm no fan
(sorry Carrie!), I appreciate how the shoes feed into a recurrent,
good-hearted wink at girlie things and why they matter. More than
once, Jennifer's keen fashion sense saves the day.
Second in a trilogy that features the online game gone live, The
Manolo Matrix stands alone, but it needs propping. There is an
annoying tendency to refer to events in the first installment (kind
of like friends who talk about the delightful Spring Break holidays
which you didn't go on), and there is a major enticement to read the
last of the lot. How else are we going to find out who is behind
these wicked, wicked games?