Author: Arvin Ahmadi
Genres: YA, sci-fi, contemporary, romance
Rating: 4 stars
CWs: Trauma, depression, cyber-bullying, on-page death, alcoholism, insomnia, discussions of suicide.
For seventeen-year-old Opal Hopper, code is magic. She builds entire worlds from scratch: Mars craters, shimmering lakes, any virtual experience her heart desires.
But she can’t code her dad back into her life. When he disappeared after her tenth birthday, leaving only a cryptic note, Opal tried desperately to find him. And when he never turned up, she enrolled at a boarding school for technical prodigies and tried to forget.
Until now. Because WAVE, the world’s biggest virtual reality platform, has announced a contest where the winner gets to meet its billionaire founder. The same billionaire who worked closely with Opal’s dad. The one she always believed might know where he went. The one who maybe even murdered him.
What begins as a small data hack to win the contest spirals out of control when Opal goes viral, digging her deeper into a hole of lies, hacks, and manipulation. How far will Opal go for the answers–or is it the attention–she’s wanted for years?
Thanks to Penguin Random House International for sending me an advance copy of Girl Gone Viral in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my views on the book.
As soon as I read the synopsis of this book, I was immediately drawn in. A girl who can code, a family mystery, and a tech competition? Yes, yes, and yes.
But sometimes books don’t deliver on synopsis and we’re left wanting. Not here. Girl Gone Viral lives up to its intrigue and futuristic promise.
Setting, pacing, and plot
Girl Gone Viral is set in Palo Alto and San Francisco, giving it a real Silicon Valley feel. Opal attends Palo Alto Academy of Science and Technology (or PAAST) and lives in the academy dormitories.
I kept having to remind myself that the teens in this book were still in high school, rather than at university, because they felt grown up and all lived on campus (like at university). But living at the academy gave them a sense of camaraderie and community spirit that I enjoyed. And naming one of their social spaces ‘hell’ was a stroke of brilliance by Arvin Ahmadi, producing lines such as:
“The Media room sits at the very end of Hell, crammed between the Oceanography Lab and the Robotics Lab.”
The overall pacing of the book is reasonably quick, but slows down for introspective scenes where Opal reflects on her father’s disappearance and how much she misses him.
There are some climactic scenes where the pace shoots off into the stratosphere and I felt like I was flying through these pages.
The plot centres on Opal’s rise to fame after her team’s WAVE channel takes off. WAVE is like YouTube, but in a virtual reality space, so Opal is basically Joanna Cedia but with fewer Bob Ross tutorials and more discussion of digital morals. (No shade on Joanna, I love her videos.)
Opal uses WAVE to look at how people react emotionally to online videos and critiques trolls for sexism and cyber bullying.
She wants to win the competition that WAVE is running so she can meet Howie Mendelsohn, her father’s previous business partner and friend. In meeting him, she hopes she can finally find out why her father disappeared.
The plot of Girl Gone Viral was engaging and had some almost thriller-esque moments, especially in the second half of the book. Every scene was used to develop the characters or progress the storyline, and no scene was superfluous.
Characters I’ll always show up for are girls in STEM. Give me engineering girls, girls doing maths, girls learning science.
So when Opal Hopper arrived on-page, I knew I was going to like her. She’s smart, innovative, driven, and determined to find out what happened to her father. She throws everything into her WAVE platform, and her ambition struck a chord with me.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about Opal’s character is how morally grey she is. She begins the novel with good intentions, but quickly realises she may have to use her friends (and any other means) to get what she wants.
I found this incredibly true to real life. We’re not always the kind, welcoming people we want to be and we make mistakes. But people put this unreasonable pressure on women to be sweet and nice; the same expectations aren’t levied at men. And when women aren’t sweet and nice, we get labelled as rude, standoffish or nasty.
But women don’t have to be sweet and nice to be good, strong people. And after seeing Captain Marvel, I kind of fell in love with women who don’t pander to others. So I really liked that side of Opal; she’s not sweet and she doesn’t take no for an answer.
She’s also a teenager dealing with exams, university applications, and a lot of extraneous pressures; it would almost be unrealistic if she wasn’t angry and disillusioned at times.
But something that surprised me about Opal’s character was the fact that she doesn’t see her mom often. With her father not in her life, I’d have thought she might have grown closer to her mother, but the opposite is actually the case.
I found this distance in their relationship intriguing but sad. Thankfully, things start to change as the plot progresses and Ahmadi does a great job of exploring their complicated feelings towards one another and showing us why Opal feels the way she does.
One of my favourite scenes was an emotional one between Opal and her mom, where they sit down and talk about how they feel. This tugged on my heart, because sometimes sitting down and talking through your worries with your mum can make you feel so much better.
Opal’s friends, Shane, Moyo, and Kara are a bright kaleidoscope of different personalities. Shane is whimsical and a wizard with a Rubics Cube, but abuses alcohol in his darker moments, Kara is straight-talking and thoughtful, and Moyo is level-headed and caring.
Kara was perhaps the most interesting to me. Opal sees her as an annoying, privileged ‘princess’ at first, and because we see her through Opal’s eyes, we begin to find her annoying.
But as the story progresses, Opal and Kara have several candid conversations, and Opal realises she was wrong about Kara; we in turn, realise that we only saw what Opal saw, and didn’t see the good in Kara. It’s a classic case of the unreliable narrator, and one Ahmadi executes really well.
I also enjoyed Shane, Moyo, and Opal’s friendship dynamic, because they showed that it’s possibly to have a strong three-person friendship without one person being left out. Despite their differing personalities, their group dynamic was fun and led to some very humorous moments.
Girl Gone Viral is narrated in first person present tense and it works well for the book’s modern, futuristic tone.
We see the world from Opal’s perspective and I really enjoyed her critical discussions of sexism in the technology industry.
“It kills me, the way men talk about me. Like I’m some naive girl who just happens to be spewing the right opinions on the right platform at the right time. Yes, men. It’s almost always men who doubt my ability.”
We feel Opal’s growing dissatisfaction with the media as if it’s our own, and her desire to change the way people behave towards one another online, resonates strongly through the narrative.
I enjoyed the futuristic, sci-fi nature of the world-building because it felt like Inception crossed with Sword Art Online. The virtual reality scenes were described in such detail that I could picture them vividly and the designs for them were pretty damn cool.
The use of AI was clever, as it made me think about how much of our personal data we pour out into the digital world. Opal’s AI knows her favourite songs, knows the lighting she likes, knows when she wants quiet and when she needs comfort. It knows more about her than her closest friends do.
Ahmadi uses this to explore whether technology is straying into dangerous territory. He asks the question: how far is too far with technology?
This book promised high-flying technology, well-developed characters, and an exciting plot, and it delivers on all fronts. Opal is a great main character, with drive, determination and a no-nonsense attitude. If I was any good at coding and lived in Palo Alto I’d definitely want to be friends with her.
The author uses a cleverly constructed narrative to explore the power of the internet and the pressures of having a social presence online. He asks us how whether the benefits of technology outweigh the negatives, all while unravelling the mystery of Opal’s father’s disappearance. This novel is a gripping new addition to the 2019 YA scene and one that will take a few turns you’ll never expect.
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