Bottom Line: Fantastic first book in an exciting new series
“In a futuristic world nearly destroyed by religious extremists, Justin March lives in exile after failing in his job as an investigator of religious groups and supernatural claims. But Justin is given a second chance when Mae Koskinen comes to bring him back to the Republic of United North America (RUNA). Raised in an aristocratic caste, Mae is now a member of the military’s most elite and terrifying tier, a soldier with enhanced reflexes and skills.When Justin and Mae are assigned to work together to solve a string of ritualistic murders, they soon realize that their discoveries have exposed them to terrible danger. As their investigation races forward, unknown enemies and powers greater than they can imagine are gathering in the shadows, ready to reclaim the world in which humans are merely game pieces on their board.”
Thoughts: The success of any new science fiction series hinges on the details of the world created by the author. To do so effectively requires an author to walk a fine line between too much and too little information. Too much exposition and the reader becomes bored and disinterested, whereas too little explanation and a reader spends more time trying to understand the unfamiliar world and not enough time enjoying the plot. The clearer the mental image created by descriptions and explanations, the easier it is for readers to become vested in the characters. In Gameboard of the Gods, the world-building by Richelle Mead is excellent. Readers get a clear understanding of the type of world in which Justin and Mae now live, familiar enough to modern-day readers but with just enough post-apocalyptic changes to require explanations. The best thing is that Ms. Mead does not make her explanations obvious but finds ways to incorporate them into the dialogue or other aspects of the narrative in such a fashion that that the plot never suffers or slows. In this aspect, Gameboard of the Gods is one of the better series beginnings read in a long time.
Another dangerous area for series is the sacrifice of one-book story arcs to the series plot. This is where one book suffers because it is busy building up the plot for future books and most often occurs in the first or second book within a series. In this area too, Gameboard of the Gods avoids this pitfall. Not only does Ms. Mead set the stage for future books, but she also creates an exciting and intense one-book plot as well. The mystery Justin is trying to solve indeed does establish certain details that are necessary for future books but it also has a satisfactory conclusion. Unanswered questions remain, as one would expect, but there is no frustrating cliffhanger to taunt readers. Instead, readers are left with a brilliant moment of clarity that does more to build anticipation for future novels than any cliffhanger could.
One of the more creative aspects of the novel revolves around the shadowy gods and their bands of followers. While the RUNA is decidedly anti-religious, the proliferation of these cults indicates humanity’s need for something greater. In this aspect, there are rings of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods within Gameboard of the Gods. They are two distinct novels but in both a reader cannot help but try to deduce the major god or goddess described before a major character reveals the name. For those who like that bit of detective work and enjoy mythology, it can prove to be a fun exercise, but those who could do without that distraction need not worry because Ms. Mead makes sure to reveal the god or goddess without dragging out the suspense any more than it has to be.
Gameboard of the Gods is a grown-up series, and the main characters reflect that. They both have a maturity that does not exist in younger characters but have plenty of flaws to allow room for growth and development. Mae might kick major ass, can drink anyone under the table, and looks gorgeous, but her need to belong and her loyalty to her country will continue to generate friction as she works with Justin to explore the supernatural. As for Justin, there is so much there that remains unexplored. He may come across as the most shallow person ever, but one knows instinctively that there are depths to his character that Ms. Mead has not yet begun to test. Watching Mae and Justin dance around each other is equally entertaining. The anticipation of more of the same, with both Justin’s development and their relationship is one of the main driving forces of this particular novel and the key element in creating eagerness for future novels.
Gameboard of the Gods is going to draw attention from her built-in fan base, but it is distinctly different from Ms. Mead’s other series to allow her to reach new audiences and build a set of fans. At the same time, there remains the attention to detail, flawless world-building, entertaining and complex characters, and deep mysteries that make her series so enjoyable. The use of both familiar and obscure gods is an added twist and point of interest as it simultaneously educates and entertains, while the subtle admonishment about the necessity of a belief system is an intriguing element. If the rest of the series is half as fascinating as Gameboard of the Gods, it is going to be a strong contender for one of the better series created. No matter what, it is going to be fun to see how the series unfolds.