The Game Beyond is Melissa Scott’s first novel. Originally published by Baen Books in 1984, two years—if I may be permitted to show my age, or lack of it—before I was born, it was reissued in 2016 as an electronic edition from Crossroads Press. This is the version that I read, a version which includes an afterword, “Thoughts on the Future of Conflict,” by C.J. Cherryh.
The Game Beyond shows the promise of Melissa Scott’s writing, and lays the foundation for her John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award in 1986 (after, I think, the first two books in her Silence Leigh trilogy had also been published, though correct me if I have the dates wrong). We can see here some of the elements that have continued to be important in Scott’s work: elaborate worldbuilding, especially in terms of background political complexity and rigid social codes; compelling, self-aware characters; atmospheric prose; and solid pacing. But while The Game Beyond is a very good debut novel, it still suffers from a certain debut unsteadiness: it’s a little more ambitious in its scope than it’s really able to pull off in its conclusion, its pacing is a little ragged, and some of the motivations of the main characters are less than clear.
There are two human powers in space, and one alien one. The human powers are the Empire, which has bred its major houses for psychic powers—one can only be a major noble of the Empire if one has a major talent—and the Federation, its democratic neighbour. The Game Beyond sets itself in the Empire, where the Empress Oriana III Silvertrees, last of her line, has just died. She has left a will naming as her heir Keira Renault, her favourite, a minor courtier who is revealed as the scion of an old noble house, disgraced and stripped of its titles generations ago.
Keira’s talent is for patterns. In order to hold on to his newly-acquired throne, he has to defeat all his rivals, either in simulations (the traditional way for nobles of the Empire to settle their differences without causing mass slaughter among the ordinary folk) or in real battle. Keira needs to sway the Empire’s factions to his side and manage a political marriage to a woman who could be a powerful rival, while figuring out a way for the Empire to survive without collapsing and eating itself. (There’s an ongoing thread about a bet that one of Keira’s ancestors made with the ancestor of the current Federation ambassador, regarding a Renault becoming Emperor, and this too plays in to Keira’s plans.)
Unusually for a Melissa Scott book (and somewhat disappointingly for me), The Game Beyond doesn’t have any explicitly queer characters or non-traditional relationships. Was Scott still finding her confidence and her stride? In the next four years, many of her novels would include queer people and non-standard relationship configurations. But since this is one of those books where interpersonal attraction doesn’t really play much of a role, it’s not a big point.
With strong characters and an interesting world, The Game Beyond is a fascinating look at the early work of a fantastic writer. I enjoyed it. I think a lot of you might like it, too.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.