Initial reaction: I need to meditate on my thoughts about Richelle Mead’s “Gameboard of the Gods” – partially because it took me four attempts to finally finish the book, and partially because I need to organize my overall impressions of it. I’m on the fence about it, really. I didn’t mind following Mae, Tessa, Justin, and the rest of the cast, but I had problems with the overexpanded and meandering worldbuilding as well as the ideals centered on the racial, religious, and social contexts built in this book. I just couldn’t love the work given those measures, but for what it was worth – I read this in two forms – my ARC copy and the audiobook narration by Emily Schafer. The audio version was well done, and honestly that was the easier option for me getting through this.
As to whether I’ll pick up the sequel – I’m not sure, but then again, most of Mead’s first novels tend to not strike me well, whereas subsequent novels, I usually tend to find the flow quite a bit better. We’ll see.
Richelle Mead’s “Gameboard of the Gods” was a novel that I was very excited to receive as an ARC galley earlier this year, especially considering I was fond of Richelle Mead’s “Vampire Academy” series. And just as I started warming up to a few selections from her expanded bibliography (I have yet to review them in full).
That said, I recognize that I tend to have a rocky start with most series I pick up by Richelle Mead. Her “first” books usually never hit it off with me, Vampire Academy was actually included in that. I usually have to read through the rest of her series to find a stride. I hoped it would be different with “Gameboard of the Gods,” especially with such an interesting premise.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. This book takes quite a bit of patience to get through. I usually blow through a bunch of urban fantasy books if given the chance. This took me four attempts to finish. Usually I never do that with any book and I have a high patience threshold. It may have been in part that it was just the wrong time for me to pick it up, but I think there were greater issues/flaws to consider in GotG.
The story has a large cast of characters, but that really wasn’t the issue with me (I read Sanderson, Martin, and Jordan – usually large cast fantasy stories in any realm do not deter me). The story started off well enough – Mae’s an officer working in the RUNA (Republic of United North America) and she’s just been suspended for getting into a tense, overwhelming scuffle with another officer during the funeral. Basically, Mae beats the girl to a pulp. Put under some degree of discipline, Mae ends up on assignment to Panama where she meets Justin March. Justin’s one of those characters where he could go either way on the jerk/nice guy scale. I didn’t have a problem with him and I actually though his introduction was kind of funny (what with him embellishing the truth over his exile). Mae and Justin engage in some sexy times, seem to build a rapport, but then take an odd turn when Mae and Justin end up in each other’s working circles.
(Hello, sexual tension.)
Mae’s tasked with protecting Justin and Justin reinstated from his former exiled position to solve the mystery behind many religiously incited murders. Add in Tessa, a young woman from Panama who’s brought in with Justin to be educated in RUNA, and a few other characters – and you get the cast of GotG. So far, with this set up – I was okay with the barest bones of the story and where it was taking me, but you know what bothered me most about this story? That which kept stopping me every time I picked this book up to continue it?
The worldbuilding. Dear goodness, it was the worldbuilding. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Mead developed worldbuilder’s disease. She comes dangerously close in the narrative in points, but the development of the world pertains to the overarching plot, which picks up steam and pay off in the latter part of the book for action and resolution. Yet, the worldbuilding was not only so dense for the level of the story Mead was trying to tell, but it was pretty darned offensive to boot in turns. I understood, in some measures, that GotG’s centered on building this religiously/mythologically jarring dystopian (or is it utopian, because they make it seem like its perfect when it isn’t) future. However, some of it gets lost in the narrative for the convoluted way it is written, and the other part of it seems so implausible that you can’t help but shake your head at how this could be any resemblance to the very real places its attributing (like Panama, North America, etc.)
I had a hard time buying the whole genetic selection factors of attractiveness or the religious/racist class systems this book built around. That made me skittish because there really wasn’t a reason for it – and between the really racist/classist things that even Tessa was subjected to (what with her accent, and people not being able to understand her) alongside the selective processes. I’m going to be blunt – I was pretty annoyed by the focus on those things. I don’t know what the aim of it was – to try to show Tessa trying to adjust to this new society? To show what made Mae different from her peers? Maybe, but it kept coming back to that factor continuously among others and I didn’t know why the overfocus was there. It wasn’t just overdone, it wasn’t treated well either.
For what its worth, I think Tessa was the only character I did fully connect to in the space of the narrative. Mae’s a kick butt character, but I had a hard time following her versus some of Mead’s other heroines, probably because she was so frosty and it was hard to note her motivations at times. Justin had his turns of being a jerk and being somewhat sympathetic. Sometimes he was funny (I think the audio narrator did a great job of portraying his voice). Other times, in his relationship with Mae – he could be a jerk, rebellious, and/or pretty much flirt with anything that moved. He’s still not registering as bad as some of the heroes I read in contemp New Adult romance, though. (Curse “New Adult” for making characters who I would normally be irritated by seem tame into comparison to the “heroes” I read in the age group. *sighs*).
But I digress.
I think the conflict in GotG was actually compelling despite the more offending elements and distractions in this story. The problem was that the worldbuilding and development often overshadowed the mystery/focus of the novel so that it was muddled and didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat as I read through it. I found turns of it to be interesting, especially noting the inserted personalities that Emily Schafer portrayed in the audio narrative of this book.
But for what it offered, it was overwhelming. Proper worldbuilding is meant to accent and immerse the reader. Too little can leave a reader underwhelmed, and too much can be a slog to get through. There wasn’t a balance to be had with “Gameboard of the Gods”, and that factor really took away from my overarching enjoyment of the narrative.
Still, I think some of the better parts of this, in terms of me wanting to know what happens to the characters, and the revelations that come to pass towards the end, make me want to keep reading this series. I just hope that it has more focus, development, and better treatment of its subject matter can redeem it in future books to come. I think Mead has the ability to do it, but I didn’t see her best in this particular work for what it presented.
Overall score: 2/5 stars.
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Dutton Adult.