Thursday, 28 January 2016

Review: Level Up by Cathy Yardley

5 stars

Level Up is a self-proclaimed "Geek Romance". The hero and heroine are flatmates and colleagues at a company that develops video games, but Adam is in the cadre of game engineers while Tessa's stuck in a dead-end audio job. They aren't close, but Tessa needs Adam's help to code a project for some potential friends of hers, and to crack her work's bloke-y culture so she's considered for an upcoming promotion. 

When I stumbled across Level Up, the reviews were remarkably consistent: words like fun, light-hearted and cute popped up again and again. All of those adjectives are applicable, but they seem like lukewarm praise, and they certainly don't accurately cover the depth of my feeling for this book. It's a delight on so many levels.

First, there's Tessa and her struggles with the sexist structures at her workplace, which will resonate with any woman who has ever come up against an Old Boys' Club. But, in Tessa, Yardley has also created a compassionate and masterful portrait of introversion and social anxiety; it's not just Tessa's gender that's holding her back, it's also that she keeps to herself.

Adam is an excellent hero, striving to find a balance between sticking up for Tessa, and respecting her desire to fight her own battles. He doesn't always get it right, but he's thoughtful and has a growing awareness of precisely what it is his female colleagues are up against.

The secondary characters were also great, and I really appreciated the portrayal of the game engineers who were Adam's friends but Tessa's adversaries. Despite their latent sexism, they weren't misogynistic trolls who bore women conscious ill-will. They were just guys who hadn't really challenged their worldviews, and had quasi-rational justifications for why they weren't sexist, and why Tessa's problem wasn't their problem. To me, their nuances really reinforced how insidious this stuff is: with the horrifying open aggression of Gamergate still fresh in people's minds, it's sometimes hard to remember that the fight can be sometimes be against something as a benign as a lack of awareness.

I was a tad worried that I'd be put off by constant pop culture references, because while I know my Doctor Who as much as the next gal, I'm not into all the fandoms. But such references were skilfully managed so that they never alienated someone who didn't understand them, or took away from the story at large.
I've focused on gender throughout this review, but it's not pushed as strongly as I've probably implied. As Adam and Tessa's romance heats up, it fades into the background, and that brings me to my last (and most important) point: the sexual tension between the two of them was off the charts! Sometimes, when characters use the "oh, but we work together so we shouldn't sleep together" thing, I find it a bit contrived, but here it worked. Oh boy, did it work!

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