Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gameboard of the Gods by Richelle Mead

Title: Gameboard of the Gods
Author: Richelle Mead
Publisher: Penguin
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration of any kind for this review. Since this is a new novel, this review is shorter so as not to rob the writer of her story, but even so, it will probably still be more detailed than you'll typically find elsewhere!

First, some editing notes regarding the galley copy (hopefully these will be fixed before the final version is released):
p103 "Dag had starting calling her that" probably should read: "Dag had started calling her that"
p122: "one filled with all sorts of half completed projected." I'm guessing that last word should be 'projects'. I’d also add a hyphen between 'half' and 'completed', but that's just me!
P141 "Did what he say make sense?" when it should perhaps be "Did what he said make sense?"
P157 "...thought I worry..." when it should be "…though I worry..."
P184 "...but she'd been grilled in how to be pleasant and likable..." would make more sense as "...but she'd been drilled in how to be pleasant and likable..."
P185 "...cut and dry..." would make more sense as "...cut and dried…"
P198 "...spoke legions about them..."?! That just didn't sound right. Perhaps volumes instead of legions?
P224 "Don’t record anything around her without asking me." maybe should have been: "Don’t record anything around here without asking me."?
In Chapter 19: "...but she felt more securing knowing..." should perhaps be "...but she felt more secure in knowing..."?
P305 "How much have you drank tonight?" maybe should be "How much have you drunk tonight?"
P311 "...the rest of the acquaintance over the years." should be perhaps "...the rest of the acquaintanceship over the years."?
P352 "...he reminder her." should be "...he reminded her." I think.
P400 "...her skin literally burned..." I doubt it! Metaphorically, maybe, but not literally! Picky, ain't I?
P424 "Excitable was one to put it..." should be "Excitable was one way to put it..."
P425 "Gan left at his own joke.." should be "Gan laughed at his own joke..." (it's like Mead was dictating this!)
P447 "He hadn’t really thought she'd stay on, and from that cool look on her face, she probably wasn’t thrilled that it had." Change of person doesn’t make any sense to me.
P450 "But it was the same thing Lucian had told Mae when he'd look into servitor hiring" confusion of tense? It seems like it ought to be either "But it was the same thing Lucian had told Mae when he'd looked into servitor hiring", or better, "But it was the same thing Lucian had told Mae when he looked into servitor hiring"
I notice in the ebook version, the chapters have odd case: "ChaPter instead of "Chapter"
and one more: I don't think this is an error per se, but "ArianrHood big on that kind of thing" sounds really weird!

To the review! I just started getting into this one in spare minutes here and there, and it was really hard to go with it for the first chapter, with its rather pretentious faux Roman nonsense with the misnamed Praetorian Guard which is the elite military force in the RUNA (Republic of United North America) nation. I was offered no valid reason why the nation had developed like that. It also didn't help to read constructions like this: "...would get bored of him..." or the weird contractions Mead might've used a bit too frequently and should've used less often IMO...! However, after the first few pages, I began to appreciate the story more, and started to get into it enough that these distractions didn't throw my stride.

It wasn't long before I was immersed in the fiction rather than in the writing of it! I have now finished it and wholeheartedly recommend it. This was the kind of book I've been sorely missing lately and it made me want to track down other Richelle Mead novels and read them. Unfortunately they seem to be of the young-adult paranormal romance variety and they didn't exactly trip my trigger, so I'll have to wait for the sequel to this one!

This novel however was in general well-written, had interesting multi-dimensional characters and a good plot. I loved that it was based in an atheist society and had no problem when the supernatural started invading because I was expecting it and it was done really professionally. The two main characters, Mae and Justin were believable, flawed, multi-faceted and endearing. I loved the awkward way they were forced into prowling around each other not because of some inexplicable whim of the author's but because they were written skilfully into this situation by the circumstances and by the plot. Mae in particular was one of the most kick-ass female protagonists I've encountered, especially of late and she was so welcome! If she continues to grow on me in sequels as she did in this novel, I'll have to put her up there with the all-time greats such as Molly Millions in William Gibson's Neuromancer, and Kitai in the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher, which are the benchmark for me.

Mae is one of the best of the praetorian guard, but after a fight at the funeral of one of her fellow soldiers (for whose death, some held her to blame), she's re-assigned to the lowly task of delivery girl, taking a message to some guy in Panama City. That someone is Justin, a drunken lech who preys on women with enchanting stories of his exotic, hi-tech homeland even as he's suffering silently from his forced exile from it (he was expelled for reasons which are revealed later and which smoothly tie into the story).

Justin finds himself in an alley behind a bar, and Mae coincidentally steps in to fight off six assailants who are there to exact revenge on Justin for what he did to someone's sister. Mae doesn't realize that he's the one she's supposed to be delivering the message to, especially since he lies to her about his name. Annoyingly, Mead stops the action right there to rewind the video and show it again to us from Mae's perspective. This was not appreciated; it was like a commercial popping up unexpectedly in place of the climax to a movie scene! Fortunately for my sanity, she doesn't do this often.

But in this case, instead of the action scene I was salivating over, I was dragged kicking and screaming to what appeared to be a bizarre combination of a reminiscence mashed-up with a flashback or a change of scene, from which we're led slowly back to the fight. I skipped that portion entirely out of distaste and I have never missed it! Now back to our regular programming: finally we get to the fight, wherein Mae predictably kicks ass x6, and then Justin and Mae spend the night together! No trope-ish YA nonsense here, whereby the two main characters hate each other and then fall in love, thank Mead; in this novel they fall in bed and then they hate each other! The love scene was a cliché, unfortunately, but I'll let that slide because it turns out to be part of the over-arching story.

Next we're at a meeting where we discover the reason for Justin's imminent resurrection and the reason for Mae having to deliver him that letter: there has been a series of murders of patricians (yep, you heard me right), all without clues, except for the last one - where a hidden camera recorded what appeared to be a column of smoke which resolved into a human being long enough for a silver dagger to be thrust into the victim's heart, then the figure was gone!

Justin needs to discover who the assailant is before the next full moon when the next ritual murder is likely to be committed, and Mae, who has spent the entire meeting giving him dirty looks and hard glances, is to be his bodyguard! She resents his lie and resents this assignment. Justin agrees to return to Vancouver and take up this new job offer under certain conditions, one of which is to bring his sister to Vancouver from Alaska and the other is to take a Panamanian there as well: Tessa, a young prodigy from a family to which Justin owes his life.

I disagree with the repression of religion to the extent it's shown in this novel, but I love the fact that a writer has the guts to tell a story like this. As I said, the first few pages were a trial, and the love scene was trite, but other than that I like this novel. I was surprised to find out that Mae was Scandinavian. I'd somehow got the impression that she was of Chinese extraction, which I found refreshing, but in absence of that, I'm willing to take a story that starts out in Vancouver instead of in an almost inevitable US city! The obsession with Greek and Roman culture is a bit tiresome and it's odd, given that there are a lot of elements of Chinese and Russian communism in this world combined, rather paradoxically, with Nazi Arianism! That latter observation plays a part in the bigger story, however.

I guess I should mention that Justin hears voices in his head. There are two of them: Horatio and Magnus. Horatio is the talkative one. I had no idea for the longest time, what that was all about, but it is explained and done well. There is definitely a connection between Justin and Mae: they each harbor something beneath their physical exterior, and Mae is in denial about hers!

Mead uses Tessa in the role of the old saw of putting an outsider into the tale as a proxy for the reader. It gets a bit tedious as they pass through the airport to RUNA, but it doesn't get any worse than that, and I liked the Tessa character. Unlike Marissa Meyer in Cinder, at least Mead knows the difference between koi and coy! Lol!

Tessa is obsessing on how people look and how you tell the difference between the Romanesque patrician element and the plebeians in the populace. Why would the US suddenly go Roman? Yes, they obsessed on it when the US was put together, creating the senate and imbuing buildings with an air of faux Greco-Roman architecture, but they grew out of it. What would make them regress? This isn't explained, and it isn't just a regression, it's an obsession. We learn that all RUNA citizens (there's another word!) are supposed to have a name of Greek or Latin origin! How absurd is that? And this is supposed to be a free and much-admired nation. That seemed weird to me, and I imagine the native Americans would have something to say about that, but in what's rather a slur on them, their position isn't even touched on! The complete contradiction to this is that RUNA makes land grants to ethnic groups. This is rather a stark betrayal of the stated aim of homogenizing the populace! So this society is far from ideal.

To get through immigration control, Mae puts her hand on the glass and is read in as a citizen. That's it? This protected republic (why is it even a republic?!) lets anyone in based on hand-print alone?! Given how paranoid they seem to be, that seemed less than rational! Mae has to declare her guns which she's authorized to carry. She also declares the knife in her boot, claiming that no one expects the knife. Ri-ight - just like no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

As they exit the airport they look up at the RUNA flag which is halved in purple and maroon (really?!), and which sports a golden circlet of laurel leaves (barf!) and the Latin motto Gemma Mundi which means "I get mine on Mondays". Seriously, it means "the jewel of the world", and it’s this motto from which they get the name Gemmans. I don't know if Mead did this on purpose, but that name sounds suspiciously like 'Germans' - as in Nazi Germany! I've never understood the juvenile pretension of employing Latin mottoes, but perhaps Mead is using this to tell us something about the stability, psychology, or strength of the Republic?

Tessa has to be 'chipped' in order not to trigger alarms everywhere she goes (that's the paranoid bit!). She gets a chip embedded in the little web between thumb and forefinger of her left hand. As this is going on, we learn that there was a Mephistopheles virus (seriously? Where did that name come from?! Mead actually does explain it: Mephistopheles is a manufactured virus.) which killed half the world's population during a period known as 'The Decline'. Some of the survivors had a syndrome with gave them asthma, infertility, and bad hair! I'm not sure Mead is where she needs to be on genetics, but very few of us are, and she's vague enough that she does okay, so I'm not going to get into it on this occasion!

Justin takes this opportunity to try and resolve things with Mae over their night together, and she promptly informs him that it was a one off and it will never happen again. The problem from Justin's PoV is that there is more to their one night stand than ever Mae could guess at. He had seen a halo of some sort around her head, which has a specific meaning to him: it tells him that this woman is very special, someone he's been expecting to meet. It should trigger a binding agreement he has made, but he rationalized his way out of accepting that she was the one, and thereby didn't trigger the binding (I don't know how that works!), but he hasn’t convinced himself. Exactly what the agreement is, we aren’t told immediately.

Mae takes them to Justin's sister's new home. Since this arrangement was made only the night before, it's truly really hard to swallow that they could have recovered her from Alaska and ensconced her in such a decent home in less than 24 hours. His sister has mixed feelings about seeing him again, and Mae beats a hasty retreat, leaving them to it, joining her praetorian buddies Val and Dag at a bar. There were learn that the praetorians can’t get drunk because of an implant, but they can 'slam the implant' and get a brief buzz if they drink multiple drinks very quickly, I guess Mead hasn't heard of higher proof drinks! Surprisingly, Mae blabs all about her secret mission. Even more surprisingly, we learn that even in this perfect, ideal, Greco-Roman society, the elite praetorians have to guard monuments. Now why is that?!

But on with the story. After a few drinks with her pals, Mae heads home and is confronted with a Finnish cosa nostra guy (Finnish mafia?! Shouldn't that be Meidän asia?!) who shows her a pic and gives her a hair sample. This is a pet project of Mae's, where she is trying to track down her niece (we learn the fascinating story later), for now we learn that price of discovering where this child can be found is a small favor, something which Mae is disinclined to do - and even more so when she later learns what this favor is!

Justin, along with Mae and Tessa takes the video of the 'smoke assassin' to a friend in Portland and leaves it with him - this is an 'only copy' original, and he leaves it unattended with someone outside the organization! That seemed to me to be plain foolishness. When a writer writes something like this, it's hard to tell if they intended it to be that way, or if they simply didn't think about what they were writing. Since I don't know Mead - that is, I haven't read anything of hers prior to this - I can't comment on it other than to than to highlight it for future consideration.

And I think that's enough deep detail for this novel, otherwise I'll be telling you the entire story and robbing Mead of the opportunity to tell it her way, which I won't do. I think I already spilled a bit more than I intended, but this story grabbed me and I loved it. It would be unnatural if I didn't want to spread the joy! I can't tell you how satisfying it was, after having been read some of the stories I've fallen into of late only to find them disappointing or so-so. This one was definitely a cut above far too many of the others and kept me coming back for more. Now I'm actually annoyed that it's over! But it's up to you to decide whether you find Mead a worth read, and I hope this helps especially since you know, if you've been following me, that I'm far from a push-over reviewer and definitely not a rubber stamp.

Don't think I had no issues with this story! It would be a rarity indeed if I didn't, but they were small enough or unobtrusive enough that they typically didn't toss me back out into reality, and after a while I became so fond of the story that I was willing to let some things go by that I might have hung up on had I liked the story less than I did.

"And the loose Greco-Roman models the country had adopted had provided a new, all-encompassing culture that everyone could be a part of." That was one which didn't ring true! A culture that favors Greece and Rome over anyone's actual culture, including native American, and one that forces its citizens to choose a name that in the majority of cases has nothing whatsoever to do with their own culture? Why would anyone come up with a system like that? That bit took the sweet SoD (suspension of disbelief) right out from under me and dropped me harshly on rough concrete. And it was glaringly apparent when Tessa started school and was subject to a level of condescension that amounted to bullying. This was an integral part of the story, so it made me annoyed, but not with the author!

I loved the Poppy character, especially in that the name contrasted with the kind of person she was, but I have to say that I found it out of place, given what we've been told about those cultural pressures imposed by the state, that Tessa's best friend in school is someone named Poppy, which isn’t a Greco-Roman name at all. How did she get to be called that? Maybe we'll find out. There's a slight oddity in the relationship between the two, revealed in this sentence: "Usually, Tessa conceded to her friend's advice..." - I'm wondering if that wouldn't sound better as "Usually, Tessa acceded to her friend's advice...", but that doesn't bother me as much as the real question here: given the extremely limited time the two of them have known each other at that point, does such a sentence make any sense at all?!

Mae drops into a detailed reminiscence about her intimate relationship with Porfirio (seriously?!). He's the fellow praetorian and sometime lover who was apparently killed due to her mistake. Again I skipped this completely and entirely and didn't miss it. I could feel a mix of nausea and boredom growing as soon as I saw that flashback coming on! This is the kind of tale where I'm really not interested in any back-story: I just want to get on with the present story! However, there is a bit that's more acceptable later, where Mae's friends Dag and Val explain to Justin just what happened, and this explains a lot of things which had been bothering me. This tête-à-tête is brought about through an interesting escapade of Tessa's!

But enough! I could ramble all day about this if you were foolish enough to let me! In short I loved it and look forward to Richelle Mead's next excursion into this territory. I hope it won't be too long.