Phoenix and his team are the best non-player-character villains in the video game universe, advanced AIs who can strategize and even change tactics from session to session—the ultimate challenge for any gamer. New fighter Dakota, however, doesn’t want to kill and denies that they are simply computer programs, leading Phoenix’s team to discover that they are human slaves whose minds are cabled into the gaming system. They manage to escape from their virtual prisons, but only to discover that reality of the near future is more nightmarish than any game and that after years of a comatose existence they are hardly in the shape to fight for survival. Additionally, game-creator Blackstar is hunting them and will do anything to get Phoenix and his friends back into the game. Gritty and teeming with violence, this novel is simultaneously action-packed and thought-provoking. The initial intriguing premise of self-aware game characters transitions seamlessly into a story of imprisoned human minds, allowing the novel to explore the very definitions of reality, consciousness, and free will. Phoenix starts out as an overly confident jerk, making his growth compelling as he suffers in the face of a dawning consciousness, struggles desperately to return to a state of ignorance, only to change his mind and fight for his freedom. The novel’s use of gaming parlance, from worlds to weapons to modes of game play, rings true throughout and is sure to gratify gamers. Readers looking for smart, original sci-fi and gamers who wish they could live in a virtual world will happily immerse themselves in this story and hope for possible sequels.