If Sword Art Online Were a Rom-com

Virtually YoursVirtually Yours by Sarvenaz Tash

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thank you, Simon & Schuster, for giving me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I had put so much of my identity into who you and I were together that I’d never had time to figure out who I was or wanted to be on my own. — Mariam

Have you watched or played Sword Art Online? Because this novel made me think of it. People today are not strangers to online dating, but building a relationship through virtual reality is another story. Technology does make communication (and life in general) more comfortable for us. However, as far as love is concerned, can it give us the happily ever after that we desire? This book might answer that question for you.

Fresh from a painful breakup, Marriam tries a VR program called HEAVR (Happily Ever After Virtual Reality). Using this innovative software, she can hopefully find new love. HEAVR presents Marriam with three ideal matches, and to her surprise, one of them is Caleb, her ex-boyfriend. Surmising that fate or the universe wants them to get back together, Marriam creates a false persona and goes on virtual dates with Caleb. Everything is fine at first. Caleb seems to be falling in love with Mariam again. But it’s not really her, is it?

Based on my summary alone, you probably think that Mariam’s a weak protagonist. After all, instead of pining for someone who already broke her heart, she should have moved on and looked for someone better. Also, if I were Caleb and discovered that my new girlfriend was actually my ex in disguise, I would freak out and file a restraining order. It didn’t matter if Caleb broke up with her for the wrong reasons; Mariam was more or less guilty of stalking and phishing.

In retrospect, Mariam wasn’t downright annoying. She couldn’t ignore her conscience for a long time, and she valued the advice of her family and friends. I particularly liked that she was proud of her Iranian culture, particularly its cuisine. The dishes that were described in the book triggered my hunger many times. It’s also worth noting that Mariam belonged to a tight-knit, Muslim family. Her father was supposedly devout, so the book had some insights on their perspective on topics like dating and gambling. If you’re an advocate of racial/religious diversity in YA, you might enjoy this book.

The two male characters, Caleb and Jeremy, were also people of color. The former was African-American, while the latter was Mexican. Between the two of them, Jeremy had a better personality. It was fun to read about his interactions with his family, as well as his light and serious conversations with Mariam. For me, Caleb was just a means to an end. He and Mariam didn’t have much chemistry (e.g., he was indifferent to her passion for social work), so I didn’t understand why they had dated in the first place.

Contrary to its genre, this book had dystopian elements. I enjoyed its Big Brother discussion. HEAVR supposedly had a very accurate algorithm, and Mariam suspected that it was a result of surveillance. The AI responsible for the matches could be so cunning that you would think it was human. If virtual dating became so effective, what would happen to face-to-face communication? Would we prefer to date avatars instead of actual people? Contemporary novels usually don’t have such themes, so I was pleasantly surprised by this one.

Ultimately, Virtually Yours isn’t a typical YA novel. It has tropes, but the story can also be refreshing. Virtual reality is significant in the world of video games, making the impossible seem possible. Still, when it comes to romance, I’d rather stick to the traditional kind and love someone who could be actually mine.