Gameboard of the Gods (Age of X #1) is the first book in a new series by Richelle Mead. It takes place in a dystopian future and mainly follows the lives of Justin March, a disgraced former Servitor for RUNA, and Mae Koskinen, the quintessential badass soldier who is assigned to protect him. Together they must work to solve a string of ritualistic, and possibly supernatural, murders that have been taking place during the full moon. Oh, and there are gods in there, too. The characters, though, are the driving force of this novel, whereas the worldbuilding left much to be desired.
So let’s get that worldbuilding rant out of the way first
I’ll bet you’re wondering what the hell “RUNA” is and why I didn’t bother to define that acronym in my introduction. Now imagine how you would feel if you had to read over 70 pages—with “RUNA” typed onto at least half of them—without an explanation. Seventy-nine pages. Seventy nine pages before Mead lets you know that “RUNA,” the main setting of the damn story, stands for “Republic of United North America.” This is just one of many, many examples in which Mead does a little too much showing and not enough telling. There are certain aspects of a world or story that simply need to be explained; you can’t just throw term after term at your readers and expect them to know what all of them mean. To be quite honest, I had to do research before writing this review because I am still rather confused about many aspects of this world.
I suppose I should provide a brief explanation of the (poorly-constructed) world in which this book takes place. A virus ravaged the world years ago and as a result RUNA and the EA (Eastern Alliance) swapped populations to try to mix up the gene pool and create resistance to the virus. Religious heretics also apparently had something to do with the restructuring of society (yet another element left unexplained), and Servitors now closely monitor all religious groups. Anyway, those who didn’t want to come to the gene-mixing-religion-regulating party were either imprisoned or fled to the outer provinces. This brings me to my next gripe with the worldbuilding: the provinces. Crime runs rampant, sexism is back in full force, technology is woefully behind that of RUNA and the EA, and women have to be accompanied by a chaperone in public. A chaperone? Is that a joke? What is this, the 18th century? For a book that is supposed to take place in a futuristic society, this makes no logical sense; why would society, even the outskirts of it, devolve so dramatically? Maybe I’m just being nit-picky, but the reasoning behind this (if there even was any) made little sense to me.
I will say, I think this world has a lot of potential, but Mead reached a little too far. It’s certainly an interesting world, but the confusion resulting from poor exposition often distracts from the plot itself.
Whoa lady, calm down there. What about the characters?
Worldbuilding aside, I did very much enjoy the characters in this book. Justin March is a former Servitor who was exiled to the provinces, but RUNA calls him in to help investigate the string of ritualistic murders taking place during the full moon; they believe that a man of his particular skills might be able to crack the case. He is a womanizer, a drunk, a druggie, and my favorite character. He’s highly observant, somewhat reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, actually, and he is particularly talented at reading people. Justin’s witty dialogue and sharp retorts were some of my favorite parts of the book, and his introduction is a particularly enjoyable scene. There’s also Mae Koskinen. Mae is a praetorian, an elite group of soldiers with special enhancement chips implanted in them, and she’s one of the best. However, after an unfortunate outburst at her former lover’s funeral, she is assigned to guard Justin as punishment (bodyguard-ing is apparently far beneath praetorians). Mae is also very likeable, though at times she feels a bit too much like the stereotypical “badass” as opposed to an actual person. Justin and Mae also have great chemistry and sexual tension, and their interactions were some of my favorite scenes.
Oh, we also get perspective chapters from Tessa, the sixteen-year-old girl whom Justin brings back to RUNA from the provinces (in a protective, brotherly way, not in a dirty perverted way). Tessa’s likeable enough, but pretty pointless. Tessa’s a smart little lady and Mead must have plans for her later in the series, but Tessa’s main purpose in this book was to serve as exposition; seeing RUNA from her point of view was certainly helpful to the lackluster worldbuilding. Aside from her fresh perspective on RUNA, though, I was left wondering why Tessa was even included. There’s no foreshadowing in regard to her, and even just a hint to the purpose that she will later serve—hell, just acknowledging that she will serve a future purpose—would have been appreciated. As it is, Tessa’s chapters feel pointless.
Wait, where are the gods? Isn’t this their gameboard or something?
Oh, right, the gods. Much like this subsection, the gods feel like a bit of an afterthought. We’re mainly reminded of their presence since Justin hears the voices of two ravens in his mind, both claiming to be speaking to him at the service of a god (and the source of many comical conversations). There are also rare hints here and there about gods surrounding Mae, but for a book titled Gameboard of the Gods, the gods played what seemed like a fairly minimal role until the last 100 or so pages of the book. Even then, their motives remain a mystery, but the mystery here is left so vague that it’s more frustrating than enticing.
Why should you read this book?
Well, despite my multiple criticisms of this book, I honestly liked it enough that I couldn’t put it down at certain points. The action is well-done, and this book is a fairly quick read. The lackluster worldbuilding is a flaw that I was generally able to overlook because I enjoyed the characters and the dialogue so thoroughly. I also believe that this world, as well as this series, have the potential to be quite good, and will be reading the next book in the Age of X series based mainly on this potential.
Marnie received a review copy of Gameboard of the Gods courtesy of Penguin Books.