Since her untimely death the day before her eighteenth birthday, Felicia Ward has been trapped in Level 2, a stark white afterlife located between our world and the next. Along with her fellow drones, Felicia passes the endless hours reliving memories of her time on Earth and mourning what she’s lost-family, friends, and Neil, the boy she loved.
Then a girl in a neighboring chamber is found dead, and nobody but Felicia recalls that she existed in the first place. When Julian-a dangerously charming guy Felicia knew in life-comes to offer Felicia a way out, Felicia learns the truth: If she joins the rebellion to overthrow the Morati, the angel guardians of Level 2, she can be with Neil again.
Level 2’s plot stands out as one of the most intriguing ones I’ve come across recently, with a blend of sci-fi, paranormal, and contemporary genres. In Level 2, the afterlife is where you rewatch memories in hi-tech pods, either your own or “rented” from others with credits. I’m drawn to creative world-building, and Level 2 has that. At least the beginning traces of one. Unfortunately, Level 2 desperately needs at least a hundred more pages to flesh out ideas, plot, setting, and characters. I have no idea how I read 288 pages without a solid grasp of any of these elements. One of the things that kept me reading was the fast pacing, but even that fell apart towards the end and felt like a cheap gimmick.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Level 2 LOVES its cliffhanger chapter endings–to the point it’s overused. It was like the author made a list of all the plot twists she could have and started inserting them to the end of her chapters. Scene changes don’t signal a chapter break, instead plot twists or big revelations do. You know a chapter is ends when characters suddenly go missing, or something catches on fire. I understand that Appelhans wanted to retain the reader’s attention by not giving them a chance to break away from the story, but it felt like a gimmick. I love a good twist any day, but I grew tired of them in Level 2 because they were so abundant, as if the author didn’t have confidence in her story. It was cheap plot twists not characters that carried the story.
Fast Pacing Can Be a Double-Edged Sword:
What helped me finish Level 2 was because of its fast-pace, at least in the second half. 150 pages out of 288 without rising action is a bit much and left me uncertain what the story is about. You can only be stuck in a pod for so long. After Felicia escapes her “hive,” that’s when pace really picks up. A LOT happens. We have her joining a group of rebels (but first she has to weave around robots and explore the bleak landscape,) training, save her friends, escape from zombies, and “fight” in an “epic” war between wayward angels and God. And all of this happens in less than 150 pages, which left all of these events feeling EXTREMELY rushed. I am supposed to believe there’s an important, epic war between angels and rebels, but I didn’t feel it at all. This is the major event! The climax! THIS EPIC WAR WAS WHAT ALL THE LAST 288 PAGES WAS LEADING UP TO! But…I am not actually sure it happened at all seeing as it lasted less than a paragraph and the protagonist didn’t even play a role in it. I can imagine myself having a chat with Felicia about the war and she’d reply with, “War? What war? OH! THAAATT WAR WITH THE ANGELS AND STUFF! Oh yeah, that happened. (pause) Didn’t it?” I am left severely underwhelmed, as if the author was in a tremendous hurry to tie up loose ends. Level 2 could have benefited from either being a longer novel so the plot can be developed further, a more focused novel where the plot develops before the halfway point, or a longer series.
Where’s The Development? Why Does This Matter Again?
Speaking of the elusive war that did or did not happen, I didn’t care for it. Why should I care about “angels” that I haven’t even met, or these “rebel” fighters? I don’t even know what the point of the war was. I guess it was explained in a sentence or two somewhere. Something about angels called the Morati getting back at God for making them do the dirty work. We never meet these “angels,” except from a distance. So we never know what their intentions are. Instead, we just have to blindly trust Felicia’s judgment (and she’s not exactly the best person to judge character.) Something about harvesting human energy…from their memory pods? And Felicia being the special snowflake (of course) whose power holds up the entire memory network. How does this work? I was very puzzled throughout the novel, trying to piece together the plot and all those plot twists.
Characters, WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?:
It’s ironic that Felicia refers to her memory chamber peers as drones because that’s exactly what they are. Mindless drones. Granted, it’s hard to form relationships when the only experiences you share are in a tiny white room, but I didn’t care about Felicia’s “friends.” To be honest, they were more like plot devices than actually friends. One of them existed so she can turn into a zombie and the other so that Felicia can rescue her to prove her bravery. They also become part of Felicia’s motivation to fight in the war, however I can’t grasp Felicia’s motivations. I never felt a connection between her “friends,” and didn’t see why she would sacrifice her life for them. While Felicia goes on and on about how important her friends are, I’m just waiting for her to shut up.
On the other hand, I’m not sure if I even want to be Felicia’s friends since all of her friends seems to have miserable luck when she’s around. Aside from the two friends she’s made in limbo, she’s only has had one other friend, who she betrays due to lust. They are a frighteningly over-dramatic duo as one girl gets jealous over a boy (not to mention she probably has an inferiority complex too) enough to resort to self-harm, while the other regards a guy as her worst enemy for ditching her when her friend finds out their affair. I’m not sure if Felicia has any other friends, but I definitely would not be lining up.
Aside from being a horrible friend, Felicia is also unpredictable in the weirdest ways. When she decides to confess her troubled past to her chaste boyfriend, she decides to do it naked. All of her traits are very convenient. She’s beautiful, so all guys flock to her despite her lack in substance. She’s conveniently “hacker,” in which “hacking” translates to downloading a program to give herself free airline tickets. These skills allow her to hack her memory chamber in the afterlife. I guess to prove that she is qualified to be a hacker, she also has a 4.0 GPA (or at least she did.) But somehow her intelligence doesn’t kick in when she’s flailing around the afterlife like a lost puppy, or when she’s making important life choices. In the afterlife, you can physically manifest anything that comes to your mind. A skill which Felicia masters with ease. Unsurprisingly, one the the first things she “creates” is nail polish so she can give herself a manicure. She’s just a very shallow character despite attempts to prove otherwise. Oh, I never figured out what’s her beef with pianos.
Next Up On The Convenient List: Materializing Objects Out Of Thin Air!:
In the afterlife, you have the ability to materialize objects with your mind. It’s a fascinating idea but it felt like a easy cop-out. You need a weapon? Just think of one! You ripped a nail? Don’t worry, just conjure a new nail! What’s stopping these people from imagining nuclear bombs and tanks? Are there rules or limitations to this invincible power? Can I conjure up things that don’t “exist”? Like a griffin? Why bother running around, finding a working memory chamber if you can just conjure one up? Unfortunately, we never get an explanation, or even guidelines to how this power works.
Julian, the “bad-boy” was the only intriguing character because of his mysterious past. But I can’t say I’m rooting for him. Neither am I rooting for Neil, the perfect love of Felicia’s life. I really think both of these guys should just ditch Felicia. I just don’t see what they see in her aside from her beauty.
I am not sure what to make of the strong Christian motifs in this novel. Neil and Felicia meet in a church. They go to a church camp together. The discuss chastity. Neil is the worship leader and plays in the church band. Religion is portrayed in a negative light as the church members view Felicia with disdain for “stealing” Neil. The term “slut” also shows up. Neil also promises to give up his position as worship leader for Felicia (which apparently is a very big deal for they spend forever going back and forth with corny declarations like, “I will give up my religion for you!” and “Oh no, you shouldn’t have to give up what you love for me!”.) In limbo, the role of angels are much more ambiguous and have a sinister vibe. The religion elements aren’t overbearing, but they did make me question the loyalty of the characters. It also made Neil a wishy-washy character who could be easily manipulated.
Structure, Juxtaposition of Past and Present:
I think the use of memory chambers to reveal Felicia’s past is a creative way to tell Felicia’s story. I liked the use of tags and ratings. We see how much the memory is worth to Felicia, and how much it’s worth to other people. However, some of them did feel mundane and random. In one scene, she is asked if she remembers the day before her thirteenth birthday, then the story jumps to a memory of a birthday spent with Neil. I spent a full minute wondering if there was a typo, or if Felicia really started dating Neil at thirteen (which would mean she made out with Julian at twelve.)
Overall, Level 2 was severely underwhelming. I believe there’s a brilliant concept underneath all the flat characters and under-developed, wishy-washy plot, but it just wasn’t executed properly. I still enjoy the idea of rewatching memories in limbo, and the juxtaposition of memories with present time is a wonderful way to structure a novel. Unfortunately it’s many flaws made me disengaged with the novel. It was below average read for me, but it will suffice for a light read. If you want thought-provoking imagings of the afterlife, I would recommend David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives instead, half the size of Level 2, but contains so much more insight and creativity.
Title Change to The Memory of After:
This is more of a sidenote than part of the review. If you haven’t heard, Level 2’s title will be altered to The Memory of After for its paperback release. I think it’s a great idea, since Level 2 was a bit misleading. Not so much because I thought it was a sequel (which was apparently the reason for the title change,) but because I thought it had something to do with video games. The font doesn’t help either. But the new title suits the book better.