Armada by Ernest Cline (2015)
I loved Ernest Cline's first novel, Ready Player One, so I approached his follow-up with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. As I expected, it wasn't as amazing as his debut, but it shares some similarities and I ultimately wasn't disappointed. The novel starts out a bit slow, despite Zack spotting a flying saucer on the first page. This was followed by a lot of detailed descriptions of video game playing, which is hard to visualize and got a bit boring. But that all doesn't last for long, and the story picked right up and maintained plenty of momentum to propel me through.
I'm not going to say much about the plot actually because I think it's best left to discover for yourself. What you need to know: video games, aliens, 1980s pop culture. The story about Zack's parents and his job at Starbase Ace also played into the whole overarching plot in a way I really liked.
Ernest Cline apparently loves 80s pop culture, but the references made more sense in Ready Player One. That novel centered around a video game created by a guy obsessed with 80s pop culture, so of course his followers needed to know all that stuff to win the game. Here it's just a high school student who knows a lot about a long-ago decade, which is maybe not totally believable, or at least it's not explained. At any rate, the 80s were my decade so I'll take it.
As a bonus, there's a mixtape of his father's that Zack listens to while playing Armada and the music is referenced quite a bit. The mix is called "Raid the Arcade Mix" and is included in the back of the book as a photograph of a Maxell cassette cover, with the song information hand-written just like the old days. The playlist includes such classics as Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," Joan Jett and the Blackhearts performing "I Hate Myself for Loving You," and the anthem from Top Gun. (And yes, this playlist is available on Spotify.)
Like Cline's first book, Armada is different from the (albeit limited) other science fiction that I've read, primarily because it's written in a more personable, entertaining way and doesn't seem to take itself too seriously. If you go into it expecting another Ready Player One you might be disappointed, but if you just want a fun enjoyable book about video games and aliens it's a great choice.