Playing For Keeps: Gameboard of the Gods by Richelle Mead

When Praetorian Mae Koskinen gets into a brutal brawl at her former lover’s funeral, she ends up suspended from regular duty, and temporarily assigned to a very special—and time-sensitive—case. She’s tasked with bodyguarding Justin March, a brilliant man who’s recalled from exile to investigate a series of bizarre murders. Things would go ever so much smoother, if Mae and Justin hadn’t just had an incredibly hot one-night-stand…

But awkward chemistry aside, the two are in for a long and unbelievably strange time together, as the murder investigation takes them to the far corners of a complex and conflicted society, and uncovers things they’d both like to keep hidden. Mae and Justin, it seems, are but pawns in an ancient and terrifying game between long-forgotten gods. Things are stirring, power is rising, and civilization, fragile and still recovering from a time of great trouble, is in for a surprise.

Here’s what you need to know:

In the near future, a virus called Mephistopheles has ravaged the planet, killing billions. To survive, countries have merged, giving rise to the Republic of North America (where the bulk of the action is set), the Eastern Alliance, Arcadia, and so on. To improve resistance to the virus, genetic diversity is encouraged when not actively forced, creating a vast class of ethnically-blended people. These are the plebeians. However, some ethnic groups remain pure, preferring to risk the virus rather than lose their heritage. These are the patricians, or castes. Religion, a scapegoat for the Mephistopheles virus, has been regulated and is subject to stringent oversight. Get too big or too weird for the government’s liking, and they’ll shut you down. The secular Church of Humanity exists mainly as a voice for the government.

A hundred years later, humanity survives in a semi-dystopian, semi-post-apocalyptic fashion, where the differences between the haves and have-nots are significant. The resemblance to aspects of ancient Greek and Roman society is intentional. Praetorians are the elite soldiers for the Republic.

Back to the plot. Justin and Mae must find out who’s behind the ritual slayings, and disprove any potential religious or supernatural involvement. Because, as everyone knows, there’s no such thing as the supernatural. Never mind the goddess who seems to have claimed Mae for her own. Ignore the ravens that only Justin can see or hear. Overlook the mysterious figure who once visited Justin in a dream and struck an as-yet-unfilled bargain for servitude. And despite the video footage of one murder, there’s no way a shadow shaped like a person can enter and leave a locked room.

The further the two get, the deadlier their opponents and the higher the stakes. And soon they realize that they’re standing on the edge of a new age, an age in which the gods are taking an active hand in matters once more.

So after all that, where do I even start? Mead, best known for her Vampire Academy YA books and her series starring succubus Georgina Kincaid, launches an all-new series, the Age of X, with Gameboard of the Gods. As I noted, it combines aspects of post-apocalypse and dystopian fiction. It also combines science fiction and mythological elements, and throws in a touch of romance with a slow-burning chemistry between the leads. Finally, it’s also a murder mystery/police procedural. That’s a lot of elements to consider, and a lot of thematic balls to juggle. However, Mead pulls it off, unveiling her world a piece at a time through the course of the narrative. It starts off as an almost purely science fiction setting, with the supernatural weirdness gradually making its presence known through hints and suggestions…before breaking wide open.

It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking start to the series, and I’ve no doubt that many aspects of the setting will fall under scrutiny and debate right from the start. After all, Mead has very deliberately created a world in which ethnicity, both pure and blended, plays a major role. Her characters visit the land grants belonging to castes such as the Erinian, Lokota, Nordic, Welsh, and Nipponese. And as explained, these aren’t reservations so much as they’re strictly-enforced gated communities, where visitors aren’t encouraged. Mae herself comes from the Nordic caste, a very rare example of a patrician who joins the Praetorians. The focus on racial and ethnic identity and genetic strength fuels much of the story.

Then there’s the way in which religion is addressed. All religion is strongly scrutinized, and only those deemed harmless or fringe are allowed to maintain. But step out of line, and they’re shut down. In this way, we see our heroes investigating a variety of churches and beliefs, drawing from Norse, Greek, Celtic, and other sources. Again, Mead has chosen to talk about the role of religion, showing that while it’s been pushed aside to make way for science and a safe, controlled, government-sponsored faith, it’s still present in a multitude of ways. They can regulate faith, but never crush it. And when the very real gods happen to come back, important things start to happen.

(This leads to one of the truly baffling subplots of the story. Justin is slated to swear servitude to an unknown god when a certain set of criteria is finally met. In the meantime, he has a pair of ravens, named Horatio and Magnus, flapping around inside his head. He has no idea who he’s apparently made a deal with, and only figures it out near the very end. A five second online search gives him the answers he’s looking for. However, Justin’s a servitor, one of those tasked with investigating and regulating churches of all faiths. He’s an expert in religions and religious matters, and how he doesn’t figure it out five seconds after making the deal, we’ll never know. You just want to smack the guy.)

There’s a lot to talk about with this book, and I look forward to the debates that are sure to arise. However, it’s a genuinely interesting, well-written, entertaining story. Justin and Mae have real chemistry, as seen during their initial one-night-stand (a staple of paranormal romance) and later as they get to know each other through the course of their work together.

Eventually, we’re granted a third point of view, as Tessa, the sixteen-year-old daughter of one of Justin’s friends, is allowed to travel from her Panamanian home to the RUNA capital in Vancouver. There, we get to see an outsider’s perspective, as she goes from the rather backwater province (which lacks much of the technology and comfort) to the bustling metropolis and center of everything. This is, of course, another staple of dystopian fiction: the drastic differences between the haves and have-nots, and echoes Katniss’s experience when she goes from District 12 to the Panem Capital. Tessa is a fun character to watch, a precocious and resourceful young woman who practically steals the show.

So Gameboard of the Gods is dystopian science fiction, post-apocalyptic fantasy, a murder mystery and a paranormal romance. It’s a strong start to an intriguing series, and I look forward to seeing where Mead goes with the ideas and seeds she’s planted, just as much as I look forward to seeing the discussions it sparks.

For a very useful glossary of terms used in this book, go here.

For even more information, go here.


Gameboard of the Gods by Richelle Mead is available now from Dutton.

Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.


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