GODS WALK AMONG US, WE ARE THEIR PAWNS
Behind a series of ritualistic murders lies a hidden reality a kick-ass heroine isn’t ready to believe.
Gameboard Of The Gods
(Age Of X, Book 1)
Genre: Science Fiction, Paranormal
Format: Paperback, 464 Pages
Date: 6th June 2013
For almost a decade author Richelle Mead has been one of the most popular voices of the urban fantasy scene; writing a number of successful books in more than one series, for both the young adult audience as wells as adult readers. With the very noticeable shift towards dystopian stories in the mass market publishing sphere, kick-started by the success and popularity of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, it was perhaps inevitable that Mead would follow the trend and throw her hat into the dystopia ring.
The end result of the decision to step out of her comfort zone is Gameboard Of The Gods, the first instalment of a new series called Age Of X. The book is ostensibly categorised as science fiction but it is worth noting that while the story, superficially at least, has the trappings of the current wave of dystopian fiction in terms of its setting, the narrative remains firmly rooted urban fantasy and the paranormal.
Pre-existing fans of the author, already familiar with some or all of her previous work, will not likely encounter any true surprises while reading the novel. Aside from the notable differences in the world building it is not a stretch to state that even readers who have never read anything by Mead, but are nonetheless well versed in the tropes of urban fantasy literature, will know ahead of time exactly what to expect. Gameboard Of The Gods is a book that pretty much treads most of the well worn conventions of the genre.
It should come as no surprise to discover that Gameboard’s main character is a kick-ass heroine with dubious taste in men. And like many other female urban fantasy protagonists, Mae Koskinen, is a vision of beauty who attracts copious amounts of male attention; which obviously signifies love triangles. While there is no such love triangle to tarnish this book, the seeds for a future one are planted so it can be taken for granted that Mae will find herself in one at some point during the sequel. Unsurprisingly, in this book her principal love interest Justin March (because every urban fantasy heroine needs one apparently), is a womanising douchebag whom she jumps into bed with a the earliest opportunity. This predictably leads to incessant love/hate, will they, won’t they shenanigans as various contrivances conspire to prevent either of them from acknowledging their true feelings.
It’s fair to say that there isn’t anything particularly original or compelling on offer with regard to characterisation. But this is unlikely to be an issue for readers who are content with the cliché characters and relationships that pervade urban fantasy literature. Those who prefer characters to be more complex in their motivations and personality traits, not to mention more coherent in their actions, may find it difficult to become terribly invested in either of the main characters.
The world building is probably the most interesting facet of the book, which is not to suggest there aren’t deficiencies in this area too. The story takes place in an alternate history world that has been devastated by the outbreak of a disease that decimated much of the global population. This period of turmoil, which came to be known as The Decline, left in its wake new political, economic, social and cultural realities. The most significant change being the emergence of the RUNA (Republic of United North America, a single super-state formed by the merging of Canada and the US) as the world’s leading power. This new state provides the locations for most of the story. The principal problem with Mead’s world building is that, being as light on details as it is, the setting is just too shallow to be truly effective. This lack of depth makes the already unconvincing alternate history world much less believable. But while realism is not necessarily to be expected from genre fiction, having a plausible backdrop for a story can be tremendously beneficial as it can turn the setting into another character in its own right.
Ultimately, this is a gripe that will only be of concern to readers who appreciate comprehensive world building. So it is a complaint that in all likelihood won’t resonate with the book’s target audience. For those readers the book’s shortcomings in this regard will in no way detract from the narrative, which is essentially a murder mystery. And what sets this particular take apart from a run-of-the-mill “whodunnit” is that the serial killings at the centre of the story have an unexplainable paranormal component; which is very problematic in the RUNA. The official position of the authorities is that the paranormal doesn’t exist. Employees of the government are effectively not permitted to believe otherwise or hold any kind of unauthorised religious convictions. Belief in the paranormal, and religious dogma among the general population is strictly controlled.
Heroine, Mae Koskinen, is a member of the RUNA’s Praetorian guard; an elite military force of enhanced super soldiers. After being suspended from active duty she is assigned, as punishment, the task of escorting Justin March back to the RUNA from exile in Latin America so that he may lead the investigation into the murders. Justin was formerly an employee of a RUNA government agency, working as a Servitor, responsible for debunking belief in the paranormal, as well as monitoring the activities of religious groups. As a servitor he had the authority to grant licences to faith groups to practice religions deemed to be harmless, while revoking licences of religions deemed to be a potential threat. He was eventually stripped of his position, before being sent into exile, after a personal experience caused him to not only believe in the existence of a paranormal world but that deities walked among them. It is for this reason that the RUNA authorities reluctantly decided to end his exile in the hope that he can solve the case before the killer can strike again.
Gameboard’s murder mystery plot is actually rather compelling. Sadly, it is very much overshadowed, having to frequently play second fiddle to the love/hate sexual tension between the lead characters. While this doesn’t particularly play well with the sensibilities of a thirty-something male reader such as myself, it will no doubt be lapped up by the book’s intended target demographic, especially established followers of the author. The only Richelle Mead fans likely to be disappointed are those who expect the shift of genre to herald some new storytelling. The truth is, this book isn’t a great departure from Mead’s previous urban fantasy novels.
In summation, Gameboard Of The Gods doesn’t really work as a dystopian science fiction tale; it reads too much like an urban fantasy, which is obviously not such a bad thing if you love the genre. However, I would only recommend it to readers who, for whatever reason, like to read stories in which immature relationship drama is more important than the actual plot.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.