Don't Read The Comments is the newest book by Eric Smith, a literary agent and author of The Geek's Guide To Dating and other books, as well as the owner of many adorable pets. (Full disclosure: Eric was also my editor many, many years ago on the Quirk Books blog, and we've remained friends since then.) It tells the story of two teens who meet and fall in love pretty much entirely online, with the help of a video massive multiplayer game called "Reclaim The Sun." Divya Sharma has managed to turn her love of the game into a popular streaming channel that brings in a little bit of revenue for her and her recently-divorced mother. Aaron Jericho is an aspiring video game writer whose parents want nothing more than for him to follow in their footsteps and go to medical school. A chance encounter in "Reclaim The Sun" helps these two isolated brown kids find solace in each other—but a well-orchestrated doxxing campaign from a group of racist, sexist trolls threatens to tear it all down.
On the surface, this is a perfect nerdy setup of star-crossed lovers coming together against all odds, with a touch of hyper-relevant social commentary. In execution, it pulls that off with plenty of delight. It's certainly not the most high-stakes story I've read—the only doomed kingdoms exist in a video game—but Smith manages to keep the characters' internal stakes on the edge the whole time. And that's realistic, because these are teenagers, for whom everything does feel the end of the world, even when it's not. Even when you're in the video game, and digital avatars do get destroyed, it leaves an emotional impact because it means so much to Divya and Aaron.
This is true even if you—like me—are not much of a gamer yourself. I'm certainly familiar with the fact that watching people live-stream video games is a thing, but it's not something I've ever engaged with. Smith makes this world instantly accessible and understandable, in a way that reminded me of my own high school days on the Internet. There's a nostalgic element to the wholesomeness of the community-building that happens online, which seems almost alien today—and yet, the looming threats from the Troll Army are still very real, and very present throughout the book. But Smith is also clever enough to make sure that these trolls are never reduced to cardboard cutouts of villainy. They are a huge segment of the gamer market, after all, and the power of profitability ends up affecting both Divya and Aaron in different ways. While Divya's character arc is generally more compelling, Smith does some important work with Aaron as the benign-but-well-intentioned guy who has to un-learn the stereotypically masculine behaviors he's internalized in his young life in order to actually become an equal and supportive partner for Divya—and that's a really important lesson for today.
There are plenty of delightful, corny-nerd-romance moments throughout the book that genuinely left me smiling and giddy. It's a quick read, and it's just an utter joy. I'll leave this review with the initial response that struck me about halfway through reading the book: it's everything I wanted Ready Player One to be, except with actual emotions, characters, and stakes that gave me something to care about and connect with.
Don't Read The Comments is out January 28 from Inkyard Press / Harlequin.