You don’t have to understand Dahlia Moss’s references to Pokemon, Dungeons & Dragons, tabletop games, and Doctor Who to be enamored with her. It helps—and if I know my audience, you probably understand them anyway—but you don’t have to to enjoy her company.
Why? Because the heroine of Max Wirestone’s The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss is more than just a well-rounded geek; she’s a pitch-perfect stand-in for anyone who’s ever been down on her luck, unceremoniously dumped, unsure of himself, or awkward in social situations. So, all of us. Dahlia Moss is all of us.
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Though hopefully you’ve never quite found yourself in the situation Dahlia does. This particular despondent St. Louis resident has seen better days. She’s unemployed, recovering from a breakup, and squatting in the apartment of her rich, eccentric friend, Charice, when enters a stranger: wealthy, enigmatic, self-indulgent Jonah Long waltzes into a costume party and hands an aimless Dahlia a mission—to recover one of his stolen treasures. But Dahlia hasn’t been hired on as a run-of-the-mill detective; she’s been dispatched to recover the Bejeweled Spear of Infinite Piercing, which has been nicked inside the MMORPG Kingdom of Zoth.
Set your phasers to stun. Things are about to get real geektastic up in here.
They’re also about to get sinister. Just as Dahlia embarks on her quest (and on the separate investigation into why the heck she was hired), Jonah meets a premature and unfortunate end. Now, on top of a virtual spear, our girl’s got a very real death to investigate. And judging by Jonah’s disgruntled social circle—both online and and off—the two cases are very much related.
Along the way, she boards a tilt-a-whirl of the human condition, encountering a host of unique characters, from a couple of bonafide detectives, to a dreamboat who may or may not be a murderer, to a curious hiring manager, and more gamers than you can shake a bejeweled spear of infinite piercing at. She will dig through trash, plan an immersive online funeral, attend a seance, alarm strangers with nice eyes, and camouflage herself as a manic pixie dream girl.
Finally, just finally, she’ll make it to a gaming convention in the hopes of nabbing a murderer. Because, as Wirestone points out, there is no better place to get away with murder than at a con.
The plot’s delightful, the writing witty, the window dressing buoyant, but none of it would matter if Dahlia’s slumping shoulders couldn’t carry the weight of such fandom. But she shines, even at her low points. Dahlia’s complicated. She’s not just a geek girl; in fact, she’s strenuously trying to straddle the line between “normal” and “Zoth guild material.” As she says of her relationship with her D&D-obsessed older brother, “I never seemed to go where Alden wanted me to. He’d present me with a quest, and rather than killing the dragon, I would linger about the princess’s castle.”
She’s a malcontent with a heart of gold, never less than relatable (e.g., “I took the bills and placed them inside my copy of Northanger Abbey.”). Her “outsider with an inside knowledge” status allows the thrum of inside jokes to continue without the risk of becoming overly precious. She’s a vessel of calm floating through a sea of manic action.
I leave you with this review of her botched online funeral for Jonah, an event that ended with virtual spider demons devouring the mourners: “Highlight of my week. Thank you for inviting me to this bloodbath.” I promise you’ll feel something similar as you turn the last page.