The Givenchy Code, by Julie Kenner

>> Friday, January 20, 2006

I didn't much like the first Julie Kenner book I read, Silent Confessions.

The second one, The Spy Who Loves Me was an improvement.

The latest, The Givenchy Code (excerpt), was even better!

As if a recent break-up, scrounging for rent money, and lusting after designer shoes weren't enough to make graduate student Melanie Prescott's life challenging, suddenly she's practically living The DaVinci Code. A mysterious stranger is sending obscure codes and clues her way and she soon discovers she has to solve them in order to stay alive. With stakes like that, her dissertation on "the derivation and primary characteristics of codes and ciphers used by prevailing nations during wartime" is looking a little less important than it was yesterday.

Right now she's just worrying about living to see tomorrow. The only bright spot in the whole freakish nightmare is Matthew Stryker, the six-foot tall dark and handsome stranger who's determined to protect her. Well, that and the millions of dollars that will be her reward if she survives this deadly game. And she'd better survive. Because that's a heck of a lot of money to be able to spend on shoes and handbags and sunglasses and dresses, and, well, it's hard to be fashionable when you're dead.
I love treasure hunts. I'm willing to forgive many flaws in a book, as long as the treasure hunt aspect is well done. In The Givenchy Code, it was, and there weren't many flaws to forgive anyway. A B+.

The premise is great. Play.Survive.Win is an online game in which players are assigned the role of either Target, Protector or Assassin. The Target has to solve codes (taylored to the interests the player has included in his profile) to advance in the game, all the while escaping the Assassin. The Assassin, obviously, has to pursue the Target and try to kill him or her, and the Protector has to make sure the Assassin doesn't get to the Target.

All well and good; the only problem is that someone has decided to take the game live, and heroine Mel Prescott has been assigned the role of Target. One day she receives a mysterious code, reading "Play or Die". She dismisses this as nonsense, until the Assassin has killed someone close to her in order to persuade her he means business. Still, she doesn't really find out exactly what's going on until her Protector finds her and explains things.

Matthew Stryker has been assigned the Protector role. It's his second go at it; the first time, he dismissed the warnings (just as Mel did) and the woman who was the Target that time was killed. This time around, he refuses to let it happen, and he'll protect Mel at all costs... especially because he's soon very attracted to her.

From then on, the book just flies as Mel and Stryker rush around Manhattan following obscure clues and evading the Assassin. Even though I tend to prefer slower-paced books, I really enjoyed the pace here. It was fast enough to keep it very exciting, and yet it never gave me whiplash. Yes, Mel and Stryker spend most of the time on the run, but there's enough there during those scenes to persuade me that they're falling for each other, and just enough justified downtime that the love scenes don't come off as silly, like so many of those shagging-while-the-bullets-fly-above scenes often seem.

I really liked the dynamics of Stryker and Melanie's relationship. They are truly a partnership, and that's quite rare. Mel is a smart and sensible woman caught up in a truly horrible situation, but while her reactions are realistic and she doesn't simply take things in stride, she handles it well. She's pissed off and angry and scared, but she pulls up her socks and does what she has to do to stay alive. She solves some pretty difficult codes during the game (and is human enough to actually enjoy the challenge somewhat, in spite of the circumstances), and, remarkably, she realizes she needs to trust Stryker and his expertise and does exactly that.

Stryker is a bit of a shadowier figure than Mel, who has more scenes from her POV and narrates those in first person, but I very much liked what I saw. I especially enjoyed that he had no foolish ego about Mel being better at codebreaking and puzzle-solving than he was. In fact, he was actually attracted to her because she didn't go all defenseless little girl and cower behind him, but stood right next to him and did her part to make things happen.

The codes themselves, as I mentioned, were lots of fun. They're not exactly solveable by the reader, unless said reader has a very expert knowledge of Manhattan, but I didn't mind. After all, they were supposed to be specific to Mel's expertise, so I wasn't really expecting to be able to solve them. Anyway, I found them quite ingenious and had a blast following Mel and Stryker around. Plus, all that whipping around Manhattan had plenty of colour, and made for a fun tour.

The ending of TGC was pretty good, too. It leaves the door wid open for more adventures in this world, while giving this particular episode a good closure and giving Mel and Stryker their happy ending. The latter was great, because promises of eternal love and white picket fences after books as action-packed as this one often make me roll my eyes. Here you get the possibility of all that, but in a much more believable way.

A question for those of you who read this book and weren't knowledgeable about online gaming going in: did you have trouble understanding all this about PSW? I want to give the book to my mom, and while she does ok with computers, she just doesn't know much about this particular aspect of them, so I want to know if she'd be completely lost or not.

Coming up next month: The Manolo Matrix. Can't wait!


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