Erebos, by Ursula Poznanski
Something's up with the other students at Nick Dunmore's London high school.
They're acting secretive and paranoid, they refuse to talk about why they're suddenly absent from classes, they covertly pass small packages back and forth, and they stumble around looking stressed out, exhausted, and strangely exhilarated.
Nick notices, but doesn't think much of it—until one of his best friends gets involved. When Colin stops answering calls, showing up at basketball practice, and, weirdest of all, starts talking to Dan and Alex, of all people—the guys that Colin has always called Freak One and Freak Two—Nick starts to worry that there's something sinister afoot...
...that is, until he gets pulled into the game, too.
LOVED THIS ONE.
I had my reservations at first—the dialogue and prose felt a bit stiff—but at some point, someone relaxed (I don't know if the person doing the relaxing was the author, the translator, or me), and after that, I didn't even think about putting it down until I was finished.
Because of the plotting, it works as science fiction, a contemporary mystery-thriller, and as a fantasy novel, and the three genres mesh seamlessly. The SF elements involve Erebos itself, which has been programmed with some seriously advanced MINOR SPOILER; the contemporary thriller parts follow Nick at school, first, as he tries to investigate Erebos from the outside, and then, after he gets pulled in and he starts having to make serious, dangerous choices; and all of the time that Nick spends in Erebos reads like dark, high fantasy.
Part of the reason that everyone gets so pulled into the game is the hyper-realism of it, and Poznanski really, really captures that—the fantasy sections feel just as believable and real as the real life sections. And she drops hints as to the Real Story behind at all (in other words, the solution to the mystery), but I was so involved in Nick's part of it that I—like him—couldn't see the forest for the trees. Seriously, guys. She does a fantastic job integrating multiple genres while still allowing them their distinct personalities.
While it isn't much of a leap to read Erebos as a metaphor for addiction, there was never a moment when I felt that the book really was a thinly-veiled PSA. Never preachy, never didactic. I didn't completely buy the Nick/Emily romance (at least on her side), and I was more-than-vaguely uncomfortable that Nick never came clean to Emily about SPOILER, but overall, LOVE LOVE LOVE.
A few readalikes:
Laura Powell's Game of Triumphs: Straight fantasy, rather than a mix, but it's another dark story about a Secret Game played out across London.
Chris Wooding's Malice: Fantasy/horror. Kids get yanked into a comic book. Many die horribly. Geared a bit younger than Erebos, but I thought of it a few times as I was reading.
And, to a lesser degree, Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame series (Remember this one? College students get yanked into a D&D game.) and Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionovar Tapestry (Similar set-up as the Rosenberg, but more with the literary and less with the pulp.)