Strange Exit: Muddled plot and mostly flat characterization

Strange Exit by Parker Peevyhouse science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsStrange Exit by Parker Peevyhouse science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsStrange Exit by Parker Peevyhouse

Decades after the Earth was destroyed by nuclear war and its aftermath, a group of teens aboard an orbiting spaceship meant as a refuge are stuck in a VR stasis while their ship falls apart around them. Only if all them “wake up” and exit the VR simulation will the ship allow them to leave. One girl, 17-year-old Lake, has made it her mission to return again and again into the sim, despite the danger of getting stuck in there, to wake those still “living” there. She’s joined by her younger sister Willow in the form of a sim “figment” (her sister is lost in real life) and a young boy, Taren, whom she recently awakened, as they race against time to save the teens and the ship.

Such is the premise of Parker Peevyhouse’s 2020 YA novel Strange Exit. The premise is intriguing and certainly offers some rich potential for tension and drama, but unfortunately, despite a few solid elements, the book falls well short of its possibilities.

The best aspect is Peevyhouse’s portrayal of Lake’s grief over her sister, who was supposed to be able to join her on the ship but seemingly didn’t make it, though Lake hopes beyond hope she’s wrong about that. That grief, combined with the desperation to know for sure, is palpable and moving throughout. Sadly, that’s pretty much as far as Peevyhouse takes Lake’s characterization. Beyond her love for Willow, her quest to find her, and her drive to wake the sleepers, we don’t really know much else about her or see other facets. The other characters are even less fleshed out. Taren and another boy in the sim — Ransom — are blank slates with little to no personality, Willow is not much better, and the other teens nearly non-existent.

As for plot, I won’t say much to avoid spoilers, save to say a big twist is pretty easy to call from the very beginning or at least partway through, though to be fair to Peevyhouse, it’s likely that’s less true for YA readers who may have less experience with stories. Other problems include that several aspects (actions, explication, etc.) don’t seem to hang together, though again I’ll avoid details. And while Peevyhouse does a nice job early on shifting between sim and ship, things get more muddy as it progresses and settings pretty thin.

The ship failing does add a nice ticking clock urgency, but the flatness of the characters and the muddiness of Strange Exit’s plot negates both that urgency and the emotionality of Lake’s grief, leaving the end result unsatisfying.

Published in January 2020. Strange Exit is Parker Peevyhouse’s next suspenseful, near-future, stand-alone thriller, perfect for fans of Kass Morgan’s The 100 and Patrick Ness’s More Than This. Seventeen-year-old Lake spends her days searching a strange, post-apocalyptic landscape for people who have forgotten one very important thing: this isn’t reality. Everyone she meets is a passenger aboard a ship that’s been orbiting Earth since a nuclear event. The simulation that was supposed to prepare them all for life after the apocalypse has trapped their minds in a shared virtual reality and their bodies in stasis chambers. No one can get off the ship until all of the passengers are out of the sim, and no one can get out of the sim unless they believe it’s a simulation. It’s up to Lake to help them remember. When Lake reveals the truth to a fellow passenger, seventeen-year-old Taren, he joins her mission to find everyone, persuade them that they’ve forgotten reality, and wake them up. But time’s running out before the simulation completely deconstructs, and soon Taren’s deciding who’s worth saving and who must be sacrificed for the greater good. Now, Lake has no choice but to pit herself against Taren in a race to find the secret heart of the sim, where something waits that will either save them or destroy them all.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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