First To Borrow

imposiible-fortressThe Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak, was published in 2017.

I don’t remember where I first heard about this novel, but I put in on hold last year. I probably knew that I’d be doing the 2017 Reading Challenge, and that it would probably include a book published in 2017, but, really, I put it on hold mainly because it sounded like a book I wanted to read. I became number 4 in line for the 6 copies the library planned to order.

And, sure enough, the 2017 Reading Challenge includes a book that’s published in 2017.

Once the books arrived at the library, my hold came in within a day or two. After all, I was the first person to borrow this copy of the library book.

It’s 1987, and Billy Marvin has just turned fourteen. He lives in Wetbridge, New Jersey. His mother works the night shift at Food World, leaving Billy home alone. Billy hangs out with his two best friends, Alf and Clark. They play board games together, and try to figure out how to buy copies of Playboy magazine – the one with Vanna White’s butt on the cover.

Billy owns a Commodore 64, and he loves writing BASIC programs on it. He’s written a game called Strip Poker with Christie Brinkley. (Christie Brinkley was the most beautiful woman in the world, until Vanna White came along.) Billy hopes to be a professional video game programmer someday. Alf and Clark don’t understand Billy’s obsession with computers. They don’t understand computers.

Billy Marvin meets Mary Zelinsky, a girl his age from a Catholic girls’ school, and a fellow programmer. She tells him about a high school programmer contest, happening within the month. The judge is Fletcher Mulligan from Digital Arts (a god among computer programmers). First prize is an IBM PS/2 with a sixteen-bit processor, a full megabyte of RAM, and a twenty-megabyte hard drive.

Billy loves his Commodore 64, but it’s too slow for the games he wants to write. That PS/2 would be sweet. He figures that the best chance he has of winning is to finish a game he’d started once – a jumping-and-climbing game set in an M.C. Escher-style environment. He’s calling his game The Impossible Fortress.

Mary is an excellent programmer, and Billy enlists her help with some issues he’s having with The Impossible Fortress. She happily agrees to help. She’ll take Billy’s Commodore 64 when he wins the PS/2.

Billy, meanwhile, is more interested in programming his computer than he is in schoolwork. He’s maintaining a D+ average, and flunking a couple of classes.

Together, Mary and Will (as she calls him) work on The Impossible Fortress together. They teach themselves Machine Language, learning together, in order to speed up parts of the game. Watching Mary writing code, Billy thinks: “I felt like I was finger painting next to Pablo Picasso.”

Billy can’t quite figure out why he feels so differently when he’s around Mary. Whatever it is, it’s putting a strain on his friendship with Alf and Clark. Their scheme to get those Playboy magazines doesn’t seem so important to Billy anymore.

I enjoyed The Impossible Fortress (the novel). It was cute, clever, and, at times, sad. Nothing happened in the story quite the way I expected it to. It was well written, and a quick read.

I thought the ending wrapped up a little too conveniently, a little too unbelievably, but that’s my only quibble.

It’s a story not only about young love, but also about young computers. It is, as the book jacket says, “a love letter to the 1980s”. It’s about a time when personal computers were things for hobbyists, and people were predicting that computer games could be big business someday. CompuServe was the closest thing to anything resembling the internet.

(My first computer was a Commodore 64. My second one was a 286 built by a friend. I’ve never used CompuServe.)

Each chapter is headed by a few lines of BASIC code, supposedly pieces of The Impossible Fortress (the game). If you look closely at the REM statement at the beginning of each piece of coding, you’ll see that it actually serves as a chapter title. That’s clever.

  • A book that’s published in 2017

And, if you want to play The Impossible Fortress (the game), you can do so at

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