Book Review: Last Gamer Standing by Katie Zhao – An Action-Packed and Empowering Sci-Fi Contemporary for Young Gamers and Aspiring E-Sport Players Everywhere

Synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Reyna Cheng is the up-and-coming junior amateur Dayhold gamer, competing in a VR battle royale against AI monsters and human players alike. But despite Reyna’s rising popularity and skills, no one know who she is. Gaming is still a boy’s club and to protect herself against trolls, she games as the mysterious TheRuiNar.

When Reyna qualifies for the Dayhold Junior Tournament sponsored by her favorite team, she knows she’s got what it takes to win the championship title and the $10,000 prize.

But when she’s blackmailed and threatened to be doxed, having her personal identity revealed, by an anonymous troll, Reyna will have to deal with a toxic gaming community, family complications, and the increasing pressure to win as the tournament gets underway. 

I have been a gamer for almost 20 years – so naturally, gaming has a very special place in my heart. Starting with single-player RPGs, then pouring way too many of my teen years into MMORPGs, to online Team Deathmatches, and then, later, a return to action RPGs, which I now play every day. I have been a gamer for almost all of my life, and as a consequence I have craved for good books about gaming. Last Gamer Standing by Katie Zhao is such a book. Set in the distant future, not only does Last Gamer Standing have an accurate portrayal of gaming where gaming isn’t framed as a context or setting, gaming is at the very core of its story– one that actually understands gaming and gamers.

The story follows Reyna Cheng, a twelve year old Chinese-American girl and up-and-coming amateur player of a game called Dayhold, an online VR battle-royale game where professional players can have a career playing the e-sports. Though Reyna is a gifted Dayhold player, the thing is: she plays using a male avatar. While attending a summer camp for aspiring Dayhold players, Reyna enters an amateur tournament and starts making it through each round. As her popularity and status begin to grow, she is threatened: pull out of the competition or the troll will reveal her real identity to everyone.

With the rise of popularity in e-sports – now one of the most popular sports in the world, with e-sport finals raking up 70 million viewers and top e-sport players earning millions annually – I’m delighted that Last Gamer Standing now exists for younger readers. The story opens with Reyna in the heat of battle in a Dayhold game. Instantly, Dayhold feels like a distant future MOBA. Set in 2067, game technology has advanced significantly, yet it still ‘feels’ like a game with distinct gaming mechanics where the rules of the game feel familiar and adhere to their own rules and limitations.

A significant theme in Last Gamer Standing is the story’s exploration into sexism, specifically misogyny, in gaming communities. In the story, Reyna has an alternate account – ‘TheRuiNar’ – which she uses for competitions, and uses a male avatar to hide the fact that she is, in reality, a 12-year old Chinese-American girl. Whether the community wants to admit it or not, the gaming community is rife and violent with misogyny and sexism, often to the detriment to female gamers and gamers of marginalised genders. Having played male-dominated online games with chat functions – and was really good, often winning the most points for my teams – I strongly related to Reyna’s decision to use a male avatar. I’m not unfamiliar with instances where fellow teammates or gamers in the same match as me would incessantly harass me with sexualised and/or misogynistic comments. Like Reyna, I just wanted to play and – also witnessing how girl gamers are treated – I remember changing my gaming tag to one that would hide the fact that I was a girl.

Last Gamer Standing subtlyexplores how the gaming community is often an unsafe place for gamers of marginalised genders and also gamers of colour – how often these groups have to work twice as hard to be recognised or taken seriously, and even then, often receive the brunt of criticism or harassment that jeopardise not only their careers, but also their mental and physical safety. To have a kids book portray the harassment and frustrations that female and or marginalised gendered gamers honestly and plainly is an important step in recognising the issues within the community and that, at the very heart of it, girl gamers are gamers who just want to have fun or compete seriously – and they should feel safe and empowered to do so.

On a lighter note, the story is a fast-paced, action-packed, and will certainly keep readers engaged – I can foresee Last Gamer Standing being a book that readers can read in one sitting. The story follows Reyna across the duration of the tournament, stylishly describing the action and battle scenes, with a subplot in which she is threatened to be doxxed and also doing her best to hide her TheRuiNar identity from her friends (and TheRuiNar friends) at the academy. In addition, Reyna’s family dynamic and situation adds an emotional and evocative layer to the story, in which her father reluctantly supports her e-sport aspirations, while her ailing mother supports her wholeheartedly. This presents a salient challenge for Reyna, who is torn between her listening to her father and having his approval, but also following her dreams and proving to her father that she can be a serious professional player.

MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED

Last Gamer Standing is action-packed with its battle scenes and empowering and real with its exploration into the misogyny rife in the gaming community – and, importantly, incredibly engaging and fun. A fantastic and relevant addition to children’s literature, in a world where e-sports is just as popular as traditional sports, younger readers and gamers everywhere will love this gem of a book.

Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: A young girl gamer competes in an amateur tournament while using a male avatar – but all her hard work and her stake in the competition is put in jeopardy when an anonymous troll threatens to dox her.

Perfect for: Young readers who are gamers; readers interested in a nuanced story about the gaming community; readers who love action-packed scenes

Think twice if: You’re not interested in gaming-related stories

Genre: middle-grade futuristic contemporary

Trigger/content warning: threat of doxxing, misogyny, sexism

Goodreads | Indiebound | Book Depository | Bookshop | Amazon

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Last Gamer Standing by Katie Zhao – An Action-Packed and Empowering Sci-Fi Contemporary for Young Gamers and Aspiring E-Sport Players Everywhere

  1. This was an awesome review, and I can totally see how important this book was to you and how well you connected to it! I’m not a gamer, and I don’t read many books about gamers at all, but I actually just read two, and I enjoyed both of them! The first one is Slay, by Brittney Morris, which you have probably read before (honestly just an assumption based on its popularity and the fact that you like gaming–if you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it! It’s super enjoyable! Plus, the game in it sounds AMAZING.). The second one is one that I hadn’t heard of until really differently–it’s a sci fi (dystopian?) called Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace. It honestly wasn’t the most interesting book for most of it, it didn’t get really exciting until the end, but there is a LOT of scenes where the main character is playing the game in it. Also, the main character is aroace AND has a platonic crush, which was super awesome to see! (it wasn’t explicitly said that she’s aroace, but implied and the author also says that it’s ownvoices aroace rep)

    Liked by 1 person

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