My copy of this is an ARC that I picked up at a conference four years ago. Yes, it took me this long to finally read it. Because it's an ARC, I won't be quoting from it.
Phoenix and his team spend their work days fighting battle after battle. Each time they die, they're regenerated. That's because they aren't people - they're the NPC enemies that human gamers try to defeat. The only difference between one day and the next is what game they're in. When Dakota, a new member, is added to Phoenix's team, things gradually start to fall apart.
Dakota won't stop asking questions. She has what she thinks are memories of a life prior to being in the game. Doesn't that mean she, and all of them, are really human? Doesn't that mean there's a life she could get back to? Phoenix tries to ignore her and concentrate on being the biggest, baddest opponent gamers have ever fought against, but then things start happening that even he can't explain away.
I went into this thinking it'd work reasonably well for me. I like "stuck in a video game" stories, and this seemed somewhat in the same vein. Unfortunately, I disliked Phoenix, who I assume was written to primarily appeal to male gamers. His idea of a good life was battles, good weapons, and Mi, his only female teammate prior to Dakota's arrival, tucked under his arm when she wasn't pulling off an impressive number of headshots. Although Dakota annoyed him, he gave her living quarters closer to his because he thought she was hot...which was weird since he acknowledged that all women in his game world were hot.
I spent a good chunk of the book thinking Dakota would have made a better POV character, but I doubt that would have made me like this book any better. She annoyed me almost as much as she annoyed Phoenix. But at least she was less passive than Phoenix, who was aware that things were going on around him that he knew nothing about but who did nothing to learn more about those things.
For a book that contained cannibals and a Mad Max-style dystopian wasteland, this was surprisingly boring. The pacing was really bad, and none of the characters felt like actual people. Part of the latter could have been due to Phoenix's POV. Mi, for example, came across as his token girlfriend. Why were the two of them together? She seemed more inclined to question things than him, and there were hints that she had thoughts and emotions he hadn't even tried to find out about. And yet the two of them stayed together. The only explanation I could think of was that Phoenix was team leader, and as team leader he was required to have a girlfriend. Which was...depressing.
The book's ending was garbage, a last-ditch effort to mess with readers. The result was hugely unsatisfying. Phoenix's shock and horror didn't exactly do much for my opinion of his intelligence, either. The ending he'd been about to have was filled with great big gaping plot holes (not to mention a stunning display of selfishness and wastefulness, but that's a whole other issue). It shouldn't have required dragging him over and rubbing his nose in them for him to see them.
I don't know if these made it into the final book, but the ARC came with a few illustrations and stats for Phoenix and his teammates.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)