Review by Carolina Leyton
Penguin Random House, September 2021
296 pages, Hardcover, $21.99 CAD, 9780735269002
Ages 13+, Grades 8+
Action/adventure, Science Fiction
It was the best of Bugz, it was the worst of Bugz. She created life, she destroyed worlds. She appeared invincible, she knew only defeat. She was Indigenous, she didn’t belong. She moved with absolute confidence, she couldn’t shake the tiny voice inside: It’s no big deal, it’s the end of the world. In many ways, Bugz was just like everybody else… until she went online into the Floraverse. There, Bugz’s every move was watched by the entire world, who either loved her or hated her.
Indigenous futurity takes on a new meaning in Wab Kinew’s debut YA novel, Walking in Two Worlds. Bagonegiizhigok “Bugz” Holiday, an Anishinaabe teen who lives on a rez with her loving family and community, has another life in the Floraverse (‘Verse for short), a virtual reality setting where she is the most powerful and skilled player of the game. The weaving of her two worlds creates a story about resistance and strength in the face of family tragedy, sexism, and racism.
Bugz lacks confidence in the real world due to her body image, but in the ‘Verse she is able to channel the beauty of her Indigenous culture to combat Clan:LESS, the most misogynistic and cruel group in the ‘Verse. Clan:LESS have made it their life mission to destroy Bugz and all she has accomplished in order to rule the Floraverse themselves. Feng, a Uyghur Chinese boy, is part of Clan:LESS; in the alt-right group he has found the belonging his family and community have not given him. When he moves to the same rez where the famous Bugz lives, these two characters must confront each other and their different worldviews.
The novel opens in the ‘Verse, right in the middle of the action. Bugz’s versona is combatting Clan:LESS in a world that seems as real as our own — if only Bugz were not soaring through the sky on Mishi-pizhiw, a powerful underwater panther. Kinew’s detail-oriented world-building immerses the reader in the ‘Verse, highlighting its importance for the two main characters.
Suddenly, the scene changes, and the reader finds themselves in the middle of a pow-wow where Bugz is about to perform. Bugz’s extreme confidence in the ‘Verse disappears until she starts dancing in her regalia. The portrayal of Anishinaabe culture is vivid and respectful.
Bugz’s two worlds, the virtual and the real, are both rooted in the idea that Indigenous cultures and beliefs are central to the survival of our lands and ourselves. In the novel, though, these two worlds start competing with each other for the reader’s attention. Chapters are short and constantly jumping from the ‘Verse to the rez. In fact, more focus is given to the virtual reality than the flesh and bone lives in the novel.
This affects the ways in which characters’ relationships develop. Bugz’s family seems to have an excellent dynamic that is not fully explored. Her parents’ relationship to each other and their children is healthy and loving. Bugz’s dad is the image of non-toxic masculinity, as he lets his wife shine without feeling inferior and strives to understand his children. But because Bugz is the only one in her family that goes into the Floraverse, we do not get to see the Holidays as much as we might like. The constant action in the ‘Verse often outshines the real-world conflicts, making Bugz’s real-life relationships seem shallower by comparison.
Kinew’s strength in this novel is constructing a world where hope becomes the driving force of society and the characters themselves. The Floraverse, even in its name, sounds poetic and beautiful. Kinew manages to transport readers into this naturally virtual world where fantastic beasts are possible, where everything seems to be in the purest form of color, and where harmony reigns, despite the greed that seeks to destroy it. The ‘Verse’s presence is so strong that it could be a character in itself. Consequently, though, non-‘Verse characters suffer a lack of development that does not allow the reader to fully understand some of the decisions the characters make in the end. After only 296 pages, the novel’s final words of hope seemed rushed rather than entirely earned.
All in all, this inventive debut showcases Anishinaabe culture transmediated into a vivid virtual reality setting. As we continue to move forward and understand virtuality as part of our world and something to work with rather than against, Walking in Two Worlds will undoubtedly inspire many Indigenous youth to see strength, beauty, and power in their culture – both online and off.
Carolina Leyton is a current MA student in the Children’s Literature program. She completed her BA Honours in UBC Okanagan. From the age of 9, she has been an avid reader and writer, and now hopes to become an author of critical, important, and unique YA novels.