Dagmar Shaw is a game designer, but her games are way more interesting than any MMORPG that exists today. I never entirely came to grips with what Alternate Reality Games actually entail, but it has players follow a story, interpret clues online, and it sometimes has real-world connections. The story opens with Dagmar Shaw designing a James Bond movie tin-in game that sees some players going to Turkey to actually follow some of the action in real life, while tens of thousands of others follow the video and other media Dagmar and her employees upload to the web. She runs a successful game, and is then recruited by a US - ah – security specialist to do some interesting things in Turkey. Which she does. Things do not go entirely to plan, not unexpectedly.
It’s interesting coming to Deep State after having read The Dervish House. Both are set in Turkey, but that’s about where the similarities end. The plots are entirely different, and Deep State isn’t as futuristic as Dervish House. More interestingly, where McDonald made almost all of his characters Turkish, and events happen exclusively in Istanbul with little reference to the outside world, Williams has only a few Turkish characters, and the plot revolves around foreigners getting themselves involved in Turkish politics. Williams does seem to know Istanbul, but he doesn’t evince quite the same love for the country as McDonald; and Turkey is not of the same fundamental importance to Williams as it was to McDonald. Deep State could as easily be set almost anywhere but Western Europe, I think. Turkey, although quite well realised, is not irreplaceable.
This is, it turns out, the second book about the main character here, Dagmar. She has a few flashbacks to the events of the first, This is Not a Game, and there are a few aspects of her character that are not entirely explicable but would be, I think, with knowledge of earlier events. However, it does stand alone fairly well.
The story is well-paced. The opening, with the James Bond game, is as exciting as it should be. There are lulls in the action for character development, the action is spread over a few different characters, and it wraps up nicely. I enjoyed the politics, although I’m not au fait enough with the current Turkish situation to know whether it is completely believable or not. The characters are not the most well-developed I’ve ever read, but they were more than sufficient to carry the plot. Dagmar herself is quite complex enough to be interesting; she had a difficult childhood and still suffers from the aftereffects of the events of the first book. These make her more than simply another game designer, as well as more than simply a cipher. Her boss is appropriately mysterious, while the members of her team are varied enough to provide interesting interactions. I really enjoyed the snippets of online discussion that were included; it was a nice touch. Overall the book could have done with a few more female characters; given that most of them are computer-types of one sort or another, there’s not even the (weak and laughable) excuse of needing men to do the action stuff. There were, I think, only three female characters, and one of them was almost incidental. This was my main disappointment with the novel.
Aside from the plot and the characters, the really cool part of the book – and one that, I must admit, I probably didn’t appreciate as fully as I might have – was the tech side. The creation of the ARG by Dagmar and her team, the way in which they manipulate video, the technology they use to keep track of everything: very, very cool.
Deep State is immensely enjoyable. I have put the first book on my to-read list, and expect that there will be a third at some time which I will definitely be seeking out.