cover image Crusader


Edward Bloor. Harcourt Children's Books, $17 (400pp) ISBN 978-0-15-201944-0

Although the jacket and flap copy play to readers interested in virtual reality, cyber-adventure is only a very small component of this ambitious second novel from the author of the acclaimed Tangerine. Fifteen-year-old Roberta spends her time at a mall, working for her alcoholic Uncle Frank in a virtual reality arcade that features ""experiences"" for xenophobic violence-mongers: in the war game Crusader, for example, players kill Arab ""Infidels."" Everything around Roberta is skewed, from the misfits who work at the arcade for no pay (just getting to play the games is enough) to the mall, where the businesses are struggling and the management is corrupt. Home is even stranger. Her mother is dead and her father neglects her, spending all his time with the horrible Suzie, the mall manager. Roberta herself is an oddball, often mistaken for a boy and slow to emerge as a strong character--readers will have to be patient to see her personality take shape. The story is long and packed with subplots, veering from local politics (hate crimes and environmentalism) to teenage suicide, the inner workings of a TV studio and Roberta's quest to uncover the truth about her mother's death. A scheme to expose a dishonest politician is baroque and anticlimactic. Nonetheless, the characters are sharply drawn (racist Hawg is not an entirely bad guy; shallow teen beauty Nina helps out in a pinch), and Roberta is full of surprises. While flawed, this novel is deeper, denser and more complex than most YA fare, and serious readers will appreciate it. Ages 12-up. (Oct.)