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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

“Gameboard of the Gods” by Richelle Mead (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “Gameboard of the GodsHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read Excerpts HERE, HERE + HERE

I wasn't really sure what to expect from Gameboard of the Gods, the first in a new series by Richelle Mead. But now I'm really excited for the rest of the Age of X series.

The story is set in the future after the “Decline” when a virus struck down most of humanity. Now the world is recovering, but this period accounts for the still-relatable rate of technological development. The Republic of United America (RUNA, or Canada and parts of the US) and the Eastern Alliance (China and Russia) are the major political players. The RUNA holds three things responsible for the Decline — biological manipulation, religion, and cultural separatism — and so it aggressively combats all three. There is, however, a caste system, and people are assigned genetic ratings.

Enter protagonist #1/3, Mae Koskinen, a woman raised to, essentially, be a debutante, who instead fled to join the most elite fighting force in the world. Mae immediately seems to be the stereotype of the ice princess, but Mead dispels that idea almost before it fully congeals. It can be hard for audiences to empathize with a character who supposedly has no emotions, but right in the first scene we see evidence both of her façade and of the emotions beneath as Mae compulsively braids and unbraids her hair.

It must be said that, although RUNA denies that gods are real and disbands churches, that doesn't actually stop people from worshipping, and it certainly doesn't stop the gods. Enter protagonist #2/3, Dr. Justin March, whose resemblance to Sherlock Holmes is unmistakable. His greatest asset and weakness is his ability to notice everything and put the clues together, and in true Sherlock Holmes fashion, he also has an accompanying drug problem. Justin was a professor of religion and made a living investigating and shutting down churches, before he was exiled. He was an atheist, so the raven spirits now living in his head are something of an ethical dilemma.

During his exile, Justin grew closer to the family of Tessa, or protagonist #3/3. Tessa is a genius with no prospects, but Justin recognizes a kindred spirit, and when he returns to the RUNA he gets her a student visa to go with him. Tessa is my favorite, and she is integral to the plot. I suspect she will only become more integral to everything as the series progresses. The aftermath of her near-arrest is possibly my favorite scene in the whole book. Her character has a gift for putting everyone and everywhere's BS into perspective without actually pointing it out to them. Her treatment of and by the RUNA are especially poignant to those who have lived in an unfamiliar setting.

In all of these characters, I love the refusal to allow anyone else to control their fates, be they god or human.

I did have one suspension of disbelief problem, in terms of March's ability to identify gods. I suppose the rest of the paragraph could be slightly spoiler-y, but if you have any knowledge of mythology you'll have figured it out well before our characters, anyway, and that's really the cusp of my problem. If you make a living dealing with religious organizations and have been a professor of religion, it's not going to take you longer than a couple seconds to identify a clever male god who uses two ravens as messengers when you're as smart as March is supposed to be. It's certainly not going to take five years and the course of a book. Likewise, when you have Celtic knotwork, crows, and lots of death, it isn't a huge stretch to guess which deity might be involved. Norse and Celtic mythologies are not so unknown that these should have been insufficient clues.

I also think there was a bit too much telegraphing the meaning of what characters say, re-stating implications explicitly. As a reader, I prefer to be expected to make those inferences rather than having them force-fed. Of course, my reading is based on the ARC, and this may have been adjusted somewhat in the finished copy.

I'm not much one for post-apocalyptic or dystopian stories, and although Gameboard of the Gods has roots in each, it also crosses into science fiction and mythology, so I'm not really sure how to categorize this book in terms of subgenre, and I love that. Overall, Gameboard of the Gods has a fascinating and well-thought-out setting, thorny and complex problems, and top-notch characters, and I'm really happy with this book.

NOTE: Gameboard of the Gods was published in North America on June 4, 2013 via Dutton. The UK edition (See Above) was published on June 6, 2013.


Clare said...

"Game Board of the Gods," great title, great cover and captivating story line. When I began reading the review, I thought that is exactly how I feel at times, that my life is just a pawn on the god's game board. Of course, my life isn't nearly as interesting as this story, so I'll just have to read it. Thanks for a compelling review!

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