The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak
Dates Read: May 4 – May 5, 2017
Print Length: 304 pages
Publication Date: February 7, 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Middle Grade/Young Adult, Contemporary
I really like middle grade novels, and I think The Impossible Fortress helped me figure out why.
“It was by far the riskiest, most dangerous, and dumbest thing he’d ever done—and I am talking about a guy who once ate a strip of staples on a dare.”
It’s inevitable that the protagonist of any novel is going to do something stupid. It’s inevitable I’m going to sit there asking why, why, why are you such an idiot?! Billy, the hero of The Impossible Fortress, is no exception. But I can forgive him more than I forgive the protagonists of YA and especially adult novels.
I sit there and remind myself, “Oh yeah. You’re fourteen.”
It’s 1987. Billy, Alf, and Clark are your average fourteen-year-old boys. They’ve just discovered Vanna White—yes, the Vanna White of Wheel of Fortune—has graced the pages of Playboy. Their mission? Get that magazine. The problem? They’re not old enough. Their plan? A heist to end all heists.
“It was one of those ideas that doesn’t sound stupid until someone says it out loud.”
This, at least, is what the back of the book leads you to believe. This is not, in fact, what the book is mostly about. But it’s one of the rare instances where it didn’t actually bother me.
The book is mostly about Billy, Mary, and coding his video game, The Impossible Fortress. As someone who learned how to code in basic (I had a teacher who was a hundred years old and for some reason thought this would be useful), so it was fun to see all the throws to basic coding. Each chapter begins with lines of code from the game’s code, which was super cool because I understood most of it.
Billy and his gang, which includes his friends Clark and Alf, reminded me a lot of the Stranger Things team, which was super fun. They’ve got a great and realistic dynamic, which does involve them goofing on each other and giving each other a hard time. But hey, what fourteen-year-old boys don’t do this?
“We knew Clark was doomed to a life of celibacy—that he’d never have a real flesh-and-blood girlfriend—so he needed the Vanna White Playboy more than anyone.”
Clark has a condition called syndactyly, where two or more fingers (or toes) are fused together. So, despite being attractive, Clark doesn’t like to talk to girls and sticks his hand in his pocket as often as possible. Billy and Alf give him crap for “the Claw” as they call it, but I can’t imagine any fourteen-year-old boy in 1987 (or now) wouldn’t. I know people will call this out as ableism, and Billy and Alf don’t exactly realize the error of their ways. But at the end of the novel, a pretty girl tells Clark that no one cares about his hand. Sort of the reverse of the classic YA trope, “Oh, hey, a guy told me I’m pretty, and now I believe it.” And so, this little fact of his friends making fun of him didn’t bother me.
Mary is also described as being a little heftier, and yes, the boys make fun of her for it. She makes comments about it herself, and there is a part where Billy gets so angry at her that he uses this against her. Again, I can’t imagine fourteen-year-old boys not making fun of a girl for her weight, which is not a good thing. So I wish they’d been called out for this, even though they are not.
“I knew the flak from Alf and Clark would be ridiculous. All the little piggy baby jokes. All the she’s-so-fat put-downs.”
There are some topics that are a little mature, so I almost have a hard time calling it middle grade. It’s sort of a cross between middle grade and YA. The throws to 80s culture were fun if you like that kind of thing, and this really is a sweet and fun novel that reminds us all of how hard we thought life was when we were fourteen.
Despite these issues, I still really enjoyed this book. It was quirky, nerdy, funny, and ridiculous to boot. I know this book won’t be for everyone. But if you like middle grade (or younger YA) and enjoy some nerdy (and I mean nerdy) 80s culture, I definitely recommend it.
And a little bonus! If you check out the author’s website, you can play The Impossible Fortress. Just click “play the game” at the top of the page.
“Nothing ships before it’s ready! Just ask Atari. They learned their lesson with that dreadful E.T. game.”
tl;dr — A cute and funny love letter to computer and nerd culture of the 1980s. (Oh, and Vanna White.)