Review: The Impossible Fortress

  • Books
  • Friday, 19 May 2017

The Impossible Fortress is a tribute to old schoool games such as Pac-Man. Photo: Screen capture

Are you ready for the nerdiest love story of all time? Prepare to get lost in the retro universe of The Impossible Fortress, a quirky coming-of-age romance set in the time of 8-bit video games and Punky Brewster.

Contrary to its name, this debut novel by Jason Rekulak is definitely not a fantasy adventure. No, it’s completely grounded in real life, although its main character is on an epic quest for a truly wondrous treasure: nude photos of Vanna White, the sexy co-host of TV game show Wheel Of Fortune. Yes, you read that right.

The Impossible Fortress takes place in 1987 and focuses on young Billy Marvin, a not-too- well-behaved 14-year-old living in New Jersey with his single mother and two friends, Alf (yes, he looks like the alien with the same name from the TV show) and Clark (a handsome guy with some hand deformity).

Billy and friends live a pretty normal life until, one day, they hear some earth-shattering news: Playboy magazine has published photos of White. Of course the three boys desperately want those pictures. But one problem: These are the days before the Internet, and no shop will sell a copy of Playboy to a trio of randy, underaged kids.

Undeterred, the three hatch a plan, one that involves Mary Zelinsky, the sweet daughter of a local shop owner. Tasked to get some information from her, Billy instead discovers that he has a lot in common with Mary; they’re both massive computer nerds, for one thing, and they soon bond even more when they begin developing a video game they call The Impossible Fortress.

Will Billy’s loyalty to his friends and his churning teenage hormones cause him to betray his new friend? Things soon escalate in a completely unexpected way, and everyone’s life is changed in the process.

Author Rekulak is the publisher of Quirk Books, an independent publishing house in Philadephia, the United States, perhaps most known for putting out quirky titles such as Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride And Prejudice And Zombies (2009) and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (2011).

Impossible FortressIn similar fashion, The Impossible Fortress is indeed a zany read: The book proudly proclaims itself a “love letter to the 1980s”, and that it brilliantly is.

Rekulak’s story is full of little period details and references that make this colourful, pre-Internet era truly come to life. From Atari 2600s to Charles and Di references, video rental stores to mix tapes, the novel will probably make readers who grew up then quite nostalgic.

Also nice are all the pop culture and programming references: The Impossible Fortress often feels like a more-grounded, less-fantastical cross between the TV show Stranger Things and Ernest Kline’s Ready Player One (Random House, 2011).

Story-wise, the book is decent. It has simple language and a fast-moving plot, which means fast readers could even finish it in a day. Oddly, the way it is written makes the book seem most appealing to teen readers, who likely were still just twinkles in their fathers’ eyes in the 1980s and so would be unable to really appreciate the nostalgia of its 1980s setting.

There is a surprising amount of depth to the story that, at first glance, seems to be a simple romance. It slowly becomes clear that you should never make assumptions about anyone, even characters in books!

Speaking of which, the characters are mostly interesting to read about – particularly Billy and Mary Zelinsky – although some of the supporting parts feel a bit tacked on.

Alf and Clark, for example, often seem like they are there solely to provide comic relief. And a lot of twists occur; some are genuinely interesting while others make you question a character’s actions.

The Impossible Fortress also becomes a lot less interesting in the second half, which involves the three friends trying to sneak into an unexpected location. There, not only does the situation they get caught in seem contrived and a bit ridiculous, but the story’s atmosphere changes from grounded to mildly slapstick, which can really be disconcerting.

All in all, The Impossible Fortress is like playing a game of Pac-Man: it’s cute and it’s fun and there’s nothing really substantial about it, but it’s a good diversion for an hour or so.

Readers will probably be divided into two camps after reading this book: yearning for the simplicity of life before the Internet or feeling extremely grateful that we no longer live in those days!

(A tip: you can try out the Impossible Fortress game at

The Impossible Fortress

Author: Jason Rekulak

Publisher: Faber & Faber, fiction

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