Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: "Locked Inside" by Nancy Werlin

The death of her mother, the famous singer-writer Skye, has left Marnie immensely wealthy--and intensely alone. She drifts through the ritzy private school selected for her, avoiding friendships and disappointing her guardians, waiting until the day she is 18 and can choose her own life. While she waits, she loses herself in the digital world of Paliopolis, the only place where she feels free.

Even if Marnie tries to ignore the world, though, the world has not ignored her. As the Halsett campus empties for spring break, Marnie is kidnapped. Her kidnapper has no interest in ransom--only in Marnie Skyedottir herself.

As isolated as she has kept herself, no hope of rescue is forthcoming. If Marnie will ever be set free, she will have to win her freedom herself.

  3 out of 5 stars

Locked Inside is a thriller, but a very little one, if that makes sense. The cast is very small, with only three major players (four if we count the very influential absence of Skye) and a smattering of supporting characters for flavor. A short bit of the book takes place on the campus of Halsett, Marnie's private school, but most of the story is set within the four walls of the storeroom where Marnie is held captive. The restriction of physical settings serves as an intriguing mirror for Marnie's self-imposed emotional boundaries and her very limited social engagement.
Given that framework, it's telling how much broader Marnie's internal world is--that is to say, the online world of Paliopolis. It is also significant that the mysterious Elf knows her first through her self-chosen world, and arguably knows Marnie better than the people who have only interacted with her in the "real world."

Given the limited scope of Locked Inside, the author, Nancy Werlin, has to depend on the strength of her heroine to tell a decent story--which she does, with moderate success. Marnie comes across as a believable teenage girl, by which I mean that she can be several different people at different times. She is brittle and bristly, lashes out an inappropriate times; then regrets it and tries to make amends, having intended no real harm. She likes herself just fine. She is brave and resourceful but also realistically limited in how effectively she can be either of these things. She can be really obnoxious to other people. She's not always admirable, and I like her a lot. (Also, she has great hair.)
She needed to stay awake so that she could think, plan. Who knew how much time she'd have? And she'd gone without sleep many times before, hadn't she, while online? So what if, unlike Paliopolis, this particular place wasn't in the least fun? So what if her game-move strategies might, terrifyingly, have to be acted upon in reality?

Look at the options. Go over them logically.
Marnie took inventory again. One camping cot with canvas stretched over it. One blanket. One plastic bottle of seltzer, half empty. One plaid Thermos, entirely empty.

Ah. Well, to the trained mind, the thing to do was perfectly obvious. At the first sound of the key in the padlock, Marnie would emit a giant whoop and do a double back flip across the room. Her feet would hit the door with enormous impact, catapulting it open and hurling her captor (and the gun) across the basement. Marnie would land lightly beside the stunned [name redacted] and kick the gun halfway into the next millennium. 

Be serious.

Marnie buried her head in her hands.
 All you really had in Paliopolis was your brain.
Having been published in 2000, the book is beginning to show its age, particularly in the realm of technology. I have a hard time envisioning what the players of Paliopolis actually see on their screens. Although the fictional game predates World of Warcraft's release by only 4 years, and Myst in 1993 was already using the point-and-click interface without difficulty, Marnie and the Elf are described as typing in commands to their characters (-pick up grappling hook, -jump down airshaft) which reminds me of the earliest King's Quest games (1984). Except online.

The kidnapping plot, however, remains thoroughly relevant. In light of the Cleveland kidnappings only last year, we remember how terrifyingly possible it is for someone to be imprisoned by an ordinary-seeming person in an ordinary suburban area. Since Marnie's disappearance does not follow the usual pattern--especially for a celebrity kidnapping--the police are unable to track her down. While Locked Inside is fiction, its plot points are absolutely true to life.

Werlin's attention to details--even to ugly ones--is one of the factors that bumps this book up in my estimation. She admits the existence of bladders and body odor, which keeps this little thriller from becoming a cozy one. (Yes, that was that another jab at Wither. Like bad lo mein, I have to get it out of my system.)

A number of character attributes and secrets remain untold as well, which I also find realistic. This is Marnie's story. It's not the story of her guardian Max, or her classmate Jenna, or her teacher Leah Slaight, or even of the Elf, and certainly not of Marnie's mother, the famous and tragic Skye. That may be the most frightening thing of all to a grieving teenager--the idea that she didn't really know her own mother. Locked Inside resolves what needs to be resolved, and sometimes that means coming to terms with the fact that you don't always get a perfect and simple resolution.

I liked Locked Inside better on the second reading than on the first, when I had a better grasp on why Marnie acts like such a brat in the beginning. It's still a fun modern adventure for teens who want to see people no different than themselves getting to be smart and tough and brave. It's neither groundsbreaking nor distinctly memorable, but it's a good, tense mini-thriller that I enjoyed. Thanks for the loan, Traci!

Complexity of Writing: 2/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 4/5
Logic of Plot Development: 3/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast:  fail
Content Warning: kidnapping, suicide by a minor character


  1. I love that you threw in a mention of King's Quest. Points to that.

    I think this was a thoroughly written, surprisingly complementary review for an average, YA Fic book. You definitely hit on a good point that things don't get resolved, which bugs me as a reader... but as you so correctly point out, is a part of life.


  2. Your description of the game makes me think of MUDs ( ), I never really played one myself (tho I was and am a talker user, which are like MUDs but with no game just a place to talk to people). My now husband was obsessed with one while we were at uni in the mid-90s. I guess that kinda fits the right sort of timeframe for inspiration, if the book was published in 2000.

    1. I thought about MUDs as well, but Paliopolis is definitely described as having a graphic component as well. Hence my confusion. You're right about the timeframe for inspiration, though--which necessarily comes a while before actual publication. Werlin would have been writing "Locked Inside" from her own familiarity with earlier games, rather than with the cutting-edge games being released at the same time as the book itself.

    2. Oh, you're right that if it had graphics as well then that's a bit odd. A shame in some ways, I was quite amused that there might be a book out there where the teenage heroine plays MUDs :)