The God Game – by Danny Tobey (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Thriller

St. Martin’s Press; January 7, 2020

449 pages (hardcover)

4.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I passed on requesting the God Game late last year immediately regretted it. But I was busy, behind schedule, not sleeping well—so I needed to limit myself. But I really screwed up missing this.

Charlie is a high school outcast. In a world that worships popularity and scrutinizes the uncommon, he and his friends make up the lowest of the low. They call themselves the “Vindicators”, and own the Tech Lab at school; hacking, robotics, programming, they champion technological advancement and science fiction becoming reality. Kenny is a philosophy nerd and all-state cellist, as well as editor of the school newspaper. Son of two doctors, from a super religious family that tells him that being black is “his gift”—the Vindicators are his escape, his dirty little secret. Peter is accepted by everyone; both handsome and witty, he’s a rich bad boy that doesn’t play by the rules. He has popularity but doesn’t care—hanging out with the Vindicators is his own choice. Vahni is the Hindu god of fire; a punk bassist at odds with her heritage, she enjoys hacking and long walks on the beach, particularly if the beach is virtual. Fierce and noble and smart, Charlie had fallen for her at first sight, a fire goddess with a kickass attitude, she was perfect for him—until he found out she wasn’t into guys. Alex is a loner, an outcast among outcasts. In middle school he told people he was from Mars. His father Bao had immigrated to the US so that his son could have a better life. Alex had never lived up to the pressure—and had never been happy, until he found the Vindicators.

Once, Charlie was on track for valedictorian, a four-point average, and a trip to Harvard. He’d been on the student council, involved in events, and well-though-of if not popular. That all changed the day his mom died. Part of Charlie had died that day as well. He’d dug himself a hole and never come out. Just like his friends, the Vindicators were an escape—but unlike them, his life was headed nowhere.

Enter the G.O.D. game.

An invitation only game run by an AI that thinks it’s God. A game that promises its winners that all their dreams will come true, while condemning the losers to death. But the game couldn’t really mean that. After all, it’s only a game. And dying in a virtual world doesn’t mean dying in real life—does it? As the Game begins, the Vindicators are having too much fun to care. Raking in Goldz from missions and exploration, no one’s taking the opposing Blaxx too seriously. But when the stakes are raised, the Game begins to ask for more. First it’s only to deliver random packages or scrawl graffiti. But soon they’re confronted with blackmail and threats. The Game knows their secrets, which it will keep in return for their obedience and devotion. But there’s always a price. And it’s a price Charlie isn’t sure is worth paying.

It took me three days to read the G.O.D. Game, but I really could’ve done it in two. Or one—if I didn’t like, work or eat or sleep. The entire book is a thrill-ride from the outset. Beginning with a curiosity into the mystery of the Game, the story quickly took off and it wasn’t hard to get caught up in it. While some of the reasoning its waning stages somewhat lost me, and the cliché “unlikely” romance between a popular girl and an outcast had me rolling my eyes, there’s very little else to fault in the story. The way the Game plays its players against their greatest fears—everyone’s greatest fear: of their darkest secrets being exposed, of the judgment and repercussions to follow, while forcing them to commit morally questionable acts that it can further use against them—is brilliant, and makes a compelling story. It’s basically the honeypot, in virtual science fiction format. And we all know the honeypot works—so the book does too.

With a great and diverse cast, the characters of the book are both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. While so many of these—Charlie, Vahni, Kenny, Peter, Mary, even Alex or Kurt—could’ve commanded the story alone, the presence of so many strong characters together made for a more compelling read; one that never let up. But where there are so many strong characters, there will also be those that’re weaker. Neither Mr. Burklander nor Charlie’s father were especially strong, but Tim and Caitlyn both disappointed. After reading all the passionate, well-developed POVs aforementioned, these two felt hollow, dispassionate. Neither’s presence alone (or even combined) affects the story, but they definitely were the weakest links.

The budding romance (or whatever you want to call it), while somewhat cliché, and cringey (in that manner that all HS romances are), didn’t bother me beyond the occasional eye-roll. It doesn’t affect the pace, doesn’t detract from the story—so was pretty much a non-issue for me. The fact is that it works well with the plot, despite being occasionally cringe-worthy.

The escalation of the story is another issue, but one that I honestly didn’t notice at first. Like the teens playing the Game, I admit I was having too much fun to care! Afterwards, when I skimmed a few other reviews, the… shall we say “extravagance” of it all was unnecessary. It all comes back to the honeypot, and I felt would’ve eventually led to this point—the author just decided to skip a few steps of the progression. Another fifty or so pages is all it would’ve taken to escalate to this level nice and proper, but sometimes it’s hard to know that until afterwards. I’ll admit my explanation here doesn’t make a ton of sense, so lemme try to sum it up quickly. Imagine a snowball at the top of a mountain. You roll it down and it picks up more and more snow, becoming bigger and bigger, right? That’s what the story does in the G.O.D. Game. As the characters fight to erase their secrets by undertaking more and more questionable tasks, the Game trades up in its blackmail material, using it to force them to do more and more until it ultimately owns them. Just instead of watching the snowball make it way down the entire mountain, the story skips forward every now and then. The snowball gets bigger and bigger without us having to watch it all the time. That’s what I felt the escalation was like. At times it had all just accelerated more than it should’ve as the author skipped forward. It something that might bother you, or like me you might not notice until later, and it won’t affect your enjoyment.

TL;DR

The G.O.D. Game is a truly crazy thriller, one that pits its players against their darkest secrets over and over for the promise of fame, or failure. An intense thrill-ride, I had no problems whatsoever burning through it, and I can’t recommend it enough. A few minor hiccups along the way did nothing to spoil the story, or my love of it. With powerful characters, an insane plot, and unexpected twists and turns throughout, I honestly don’t know what to say except: have you read it yet? Why not?

What My Favorite Characters Would Be Doing in Quarantine (Book Tag)

I was recently tagged by Ola & Piotrek over at the Re-Enchantment of the World to “take 5+ of your favorite characters and imagine what they’d be doing if they were stuck here like us”. The tag, created by Kal at Reader Voracious, and looks interesting enough for me to do, especially considering I haven’t actually finished any books in a while. But that’s all about to change! Just not now.

Three from Jay Posey’s Legend of the Duskwalker

Would be sitting around drinking, waiting for someone to shoot. The mailman, the neighbor from downstairs, the girl he spurned in sixth grade—wouldn’t matter much. Whomsoever broke social distancing. There’d be no internet, calls, or TV on his watch, just drinking and cleaning his guns. Plus maybe a siesta. And he wouldn’t be handling the waiting well.

James Holden from S.A. Corey’s The Expanse

Would’ve announced the cause of the pandemic and whose fault it was to the entire world, then immediately pissed off somewhere and left the world to deal with it however.

Xavier Rodriguez from Nicholas Sansbury Smith’s Hell Divers

&

Artyom from Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro

Would have thrown on their radiation suits and gone out to search for supplies. Some people might give them strange looks, but their rifles would probably’ve prevented those people from doing anything about it (though I’ve seen a not-insignificant number of people take their rifles on a walk to the store during this crisis, and for the most part the rest of us just ignore them). They’d also keep a watchful eye out for any mutants or atomic bombs lying around.

Rincewind from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

Would be in the library fiddling with his Wizzard hat and feeding bananas to the Librarian, who would be incredibly offended but probably willing to humor his friend.

Çeda from Bradley Beaulieu’s Shattered Sands

Would be sneaking out at night and taking drugs. Then roam the desert and fight some trees as her way of social distancing while totally not being high.

Alex Verus from his series written by Benedict Jacka

Would be looking through the futures in which he went out to the store and trying to determine the paths to walk in order to avoid touching anyone. After that he’d probably just make Luna do his shopping for him.

Hope from Jon Skovron’s Empire of Storms

Would be fully engaged in sword practice and combat training. When not training, she would be immersed in meditation. Luckily, her social life wouldn’t suffer. Can’t lose something you’ve never had.

Age of Death – by Michael J. Sullivan (Review)

Legends of the First Empire #5

Fantasy, Epic, Sword & Sorcery

Riyria Enterprises LLC; February 4, 2020

420 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

Author WebsiteGoodreads

Beware spoilers for the previous four Legends of the First Empire books, especially Age of Legend!

Age of Death is the 5th and penultimate book in the Legends of the First Empire series by Riyria author Michael J. Sullivan, and the 16th book I’ve read by him overall. While initially I had my doubts about this series, I loved Age of Legend to a degree I hadn’t felt since Winter’s Daughter in 2017. So would Age of Death live up to my ridiculously high standards? Well, if you read the header I guess you know that it did!

Fresh from the events of Age of Legend (which ended in a spectacular cliffhanger that I just loved), the fellowship of eight that had set out to save Suri reached the Swamps of Ith and made contact with the Tetlin Witch within. Here, seven of those carried on with their mission into the afterlife while Tesh watched helplessly from the shore. As Brin slowly sunk to her death, she heard Tesh’s anguished cry—before darkness consumed her.

And the Age of Death began.

Brin found herself floating in a river. All around: darkness. She had no feeling in her body, and her thoughts rambled endlessly. After an indeterminable amount of time, a light appeared in the distance. Upon reaching this light, she came upon a shore and discovered the rest of the fellowship.

And so we enter the realm of the dead—Rel.

Death is just the beginning. This, the denizens of Elan know well. But it turns out, this is only half the story. And yet, the story is incomplete. The realms are out of sync—the order that should exist has been broken—and the dead that have arrived in Rel now remain trapped there instead of continuing on to the next world. Having arrived here, however, the fellowship has little option but to push onward. As such, they make their way deeper into Rel, passing beings from a time long past, and even some from a time forgotten. But what will they find at its end? Will there be a way to continue their quest, or does their journey end here, always having been fated to be a one-way trip?

In the land of the living, the war remains at a standstill. The Rhunes have pushed the Fhrey to the Nidwalden, but no further. The Fhrey, with the help of Avempartha, hold them here. But soon the Fane will uncover the secret of dragons, and then the tides of war shall change.

While Nyphron exhausts every military option he can think of, Persephone confides her misgivings to the Gilarabrywn. But after those fateful words weeks before, Raithe has not spoken again. The Gilarabrywn remains motionless. But still she hopes. Meanwhile, Suri adapts to her imprisonment. The Fane has yet to break her, kill her, or otherwise extract any secrets from her. But it is only a matter of time. But not all is as it seems on Elan. Neither force is as united as its leader believes and in these cracks, sedition grows. But will it sprout in time to save Suri and stop the war? Or will the land once again fall into chaos?

* *

“It’s just that…” Roan focused on Tressa, as if speaking to her alone. “Well, didn’t you say that the key could open any lock in Phyre? Not just doors, right? And we are locked in.”

“Only in a matter of speaking,” Rain said. “And you can’t insert a key into a manner of speaking.”

So, I LOVED this book.

But first, my two issues with it. One—the book continues from a cliffhanger that I had to wait on for some months. Two—the book ENDS in a cliffhanger that I have to wait on for a few more. Michael J. Damned Sullivan and his stupid cliffhangers! I swear, if his books weren’t so good I wouldn’t put up with this nonsense! But… they are, so I do.

The story of Age of Death was probably my favorite part of it, but there are no end of things to like. The blend of adventure and mystery from the fellowship’s quest, the suspense surrounding both armies with Suri’s fate hanging over it all combines to create a thrilling, addictive read that I couldn’t put down. After waiting a couple months to start this book, I finished it in 3 days. As usual, I wanted to wait so that the cliffhanger I knew was coming wouldn’t have it fester for too long. I bet y’all know how well that’s working out.

Once, I felt Sullivan cheapened invention and progress. Much of that is the reason I’ve just recently come around to Roan. While there’s still a bit of carryover from the past books, Age of Death is pretty much past all of this. The world-building continues to impress, and progress continues to um, “progress”, but without all the ridiculousness. After 15+ books set in Elan, I suppose the world should be pretty much flesh and blood by now. Well—it is. A triumph of design and execution, on par with all but the heavy hitters like Malazan or the Wheel of Time. Nothing for me to complain about here.

After five books, the characters continue to develop. As much as I enjoyed the Riyria Revelations, character development wasn’t a big part of it. Yes, a few of them change eventually, but in 6 books, something better. It’s amazing to see the growth and development between even a couple books of this series, as characters continue to change even in death. Granted, I wouldn’t call every change in the characters’ development “growth”, but de-growth and de-development both sounded ridiculous so I’m just going to call it an either/or term. No matter which direction said “growth” takes, it’s an entirely human change. Yes, even in the Fhrey and Belgriclungreians. And having such “growth” in one’s books, between one’s books, and especially over the course of an extended series is both realistic and refreshing.

Oh, and I’m not sure who has done the covers for this series, but they continue to be amazing and suitably epic!

TL;DR

Be forewarned: Age of Death both starts and ends with a cliffhanger. It’s also extremely addictive and you might find yourself reading late into the night when you’re already short on sleep and have work early the next day. And you might find yourself hating the book (and the author) for making you wait a few months for the next book. Don’t worry—these feelings are all completely natural. There’s a place online for you to complain. Or you could scream and throw the book at your least-favorite wall. Just maybe don’t if you have it as an ebook.

Age of Death is the penultimate entry in the Legends of the First Empire series and it’s just incredible. I was a little iffy on continuing the series early on. Sullivan tried me more than once, but he got away with it in the end. The world-building is at the top of its class. The character development is so thorough its practically overwhelming. The mystery, the adventure, the suspense that Age of Death brings are all equally reason enough to read it. Combined… this book is impressive. I know if you haven’t started the series this could feel like a long shot, but I think it’s worth the time, effort and heartache. If you have read past Age of War—you seriously need to catch up. Then you and I and the rest of the world will be anticipating Age of Empyre together.

Age of Empyre is expected out via Kickstarter sometime in the spring, or on May 5, 2020 via Grim Oak Press.

Book Review: Fallen – by Benedict Jacka

Alex Verus #10

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; September 24, 2019

304 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished me with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Berkley, Ace and NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

SPOILERS – for the events of previous Alex Verus books, especially Marked!

Fallen is the tenth entry in the Alex Verus series, and while the story has definitely taken a darker turn, the future of the series has never looked so bright. Or, y’know, the final two books or so.

It took me roughly two days to read this—admittedly short novel—in which time I didn’t get much else done of value. I devoured Fallen like a Hawaiian pizza, digging through its bones (pizza bones) in the time it usually takes me to start getting into a story. Now, there are several reasons for this, but put quite simply: Benedict Jacka has really hit his stride. True, he had nine books to perfect it. True, he waited until quite near the end of his planned 12-book series. True, none of his books are all that long. But Jacka has nailed it in Fallen, which I can’t say enough about.

After the events of Marked, Alex is left in fear of a secret he has to keep at all costs. But also, he is in love. Finally having confessed his love for Anne, life has become livable for a time. Happy, even. But all things must change, and Alex has learnt this lesson enough to expect it.

For when the Council finds out—and they also seem to find out—Alex is forced to choose between the two most important things in his life: Anne, and the person he has spent his life trying to be. Turns out not to be much of a choice at all.

Fallen presents a much darker backdrop than many books before it. I know Bound was only two books prior, but Fallen puts it to shame. A dark, depressing read was not at all what I needed, particularly following right on the heels of A Little Hatred—but Fallen provides just enough hope to see its readers through, while immersing them in the tale in the way only a 1st PPOV run story can.

This features an immense cast of characters. With nine books building to this point, turns out there’re a lot to choose from. While the main cast has stayed pretty consistent recently—with Alex, Anne, Luna, Variam and Arachne leading the way—several factions and sides each have contributed their own. Allies and enemies both have turned over, Alex proving to be a dangerous man to consort with. And yet there are some prominent mainstays. Richard Drakh, Alex’s former master. Keeper Caldera, Alex’s once-partner, once-friend. Landis, Variam’s former master. The Light Council. The Dark Cabal. Supernatural creatures, mages, adepts and sensitives galore. Jacka always seems to sneak a few surprise cameos in, and Fallen is no exception.

The characters, especially their arcs, come to a head in Fallen. Alex’s own—which was by no means uneventful up to Book 10—absolutely takes off. A rollercoaster of emotions and thoughts. Tragedy, heartbreak and hope punctuate not only Alex’s own story, but those of his friends and allies. Even his enemies begin to show their human side; blurring what has always seem a good-evil battle for Alex’s soul.

It was the story that blew me away. Desperate, dark and thrilling—it was an electrifying read from cover to cover. The beginning (the first 10%) read the slowest, but the following 90% seemed to race by. Now, Fallen is only a 300-odd page book. Though few of the previous have been much longer. And, as with many of the Alex Verus series, it’s definitely worth a reread.

TL;DR

I loved Fallen. Best thing I’ve read this year, hands down. And if you’ve read the first nine Verus books, this one’s a no-brainer. It does not disappoint. In fact, I enjoyed it on so many levels, especially with the build-up the previous books began. Possessed of an thrilling story, deep recognizable characters, fantastic character development and growth, and a satisfying—if surprising conclusion—Fallen is all I wanted from the series and more. And with only (probably) two more Verus books beyond it, we’re boiling down to a truly epic conclusion.

Book Review: The Ember Blade – by Chris Wooding

Darkwater Legacy #1

High Fantasy, Epic, Dark Fantasy

Gollancz; September 20, 2018

832 pages (HC) / 30hr 40m (AU)

5 / 5 ✪

The Ember Blade combines the typical coming-of-age fantasy with a bit of something dark, in order to create an epic debut that fails to fall under either category—yet somehow succeeds in both. Early on (for the first 10 hours or so), I was convinced that this was your general light vs. dark tale, complete with ancient evils, a chosen one, and third-party horrors awaiting to devour them all. And yet towards the latter half of the tale, it morphed into something more. Something different.

It begins with Ossia, a once great nation laid low by the Krodan, subject to Krodan rule for so long that freedom is little more than an idea. Enter Aren, a merchant’s son, obsessed with everything Krodan. Their language, their history, their law. Even the young love of his life is Krodan. They have no chance of being together, however, as Aren, as hard as he tries, is not Krodan. Enter Cade, son of a carpenter, obsessed with stories. Tales of illusion and grandeur, greatness and adventure, fame and fortune. And especially Ossia. A free, independent Ossia. Two unlikely friends against the world.

And yet when the Krodan law comes down upon them, their friendship is tested. Aren’s father is arrested for being a traitor and slain, Aren and Cade sent to a work-camp in his stead. Not only is Cade’s friendship with Aren in jeopardy, but Aren’s fascination with all things Krodan is as well. And yet with the help of some unlikely allies, they escape the camp. But… to what end? For there is something bigger than just their story between them now, and Aren and Cade—caught up in it—find themselves playing a much grander game. One that may just end with their finger in a Krodan eye, and the first piece to a free, independent Ossia. For the young prince of Krodia is due to be wed, and at his banquet shall fall the Ember Blade: a symbol of Ossian nationalism. But can Aren and Cade and their newfound allies begin the dream of a free, unified Ossia, or will they be crushed under the heel of the Krodans once again?

First and foremost, this is a coming-of-age fantasy. The main characters, Aren and Cade, definitely grow and change over the course of the text. It’s their character growth that makes the Ember Blade a success, above all else. The dynamic of their friendship is tested time and again—sometimes it bends, maybe even breaks. And yet persists throughout the entire book. Even when they’re not speaking it’s that dynamic that drives their story, whether Wooding means it to or not. I mean, there are other factors in play, too. Of course there are.

I mentioned earlier that I struggle to classify this as anything more than a coming-of-age story. I mean, it is SO MUCH more—I’m just not sure where to start. It begins with the classic CoA fantasy vibe. Light against dark, battling ancient evil with their team of misfits and mentors. An oppressed people trying to overthrow a tyrannical power. A true underdog story.

But then, something changes.

I’m not exactly sure when it happens. It begins with a crack here. A crack there. The great and noble dream of Ossia may not be that noble at all. Krodia may not be the horrid power we once thought. And slowly the realm of heroes and villains is slowly replaced. By that of people—humans—just trying to do what they think is best. The lines blur from black and white, and occasionally the story gets downright dark.

I, uh, really enjoyed it.

Chris Wooding tries something new, here. Blends it with something tried and true. And it… works. I mean, the Ember Blade may not be for everyone, but I think it will appeal to more just through its split nature. It’s not a classic good and evil battle. It’s not a grimdark piece, where everyone’s inherently selfish and the world just sucks. It’s not a clean split, a dark fantasy, or much in-between. It’s… hard to pin down. But I’d say it’s a blend of High and Epic, with just a splash of Dark. And it works. Very well, in fact.

If you needed a further reason to read it, it’s the characters. There are several POV chapters throughout, each with their own strong narrators that have their own history, morals, strengths, weaknesses and depth. In addition to Aren and Cade, there’s the freedom fighter Garric. The Druidess Vika. The prisoner Grub. The survivor Ren. A bard, an exile, a lieutenant and more. Can’t say I was thrilled to read each’s POV, but I was actually fairly well invested in everyone’s. Didn’t hate any of them, even. Each with depth of character, arcs and change and growth and regression.

A detailed world, it gave me just enough for my imagination to fill in the rest. A powerful story, though lacking in subtlety. A pretty good chunk of text—800ish pages. Or, if you’d prefer an audiobook like I did—30-odd hours. And I didn’t have any problem getting through it. No lags, as it were. Not much disinterest. For such a long book, it really kept me entertained throughout.

TL;DR

The Ember Blade is an immensely entertaining coming-of-age fantasy, set in an interesting, well thought out realm. It defies traditional light vs. dark, good vs. evil plots, instead choosing the middle ground; while committing to neither high nor dark fantasy in its telling. The text is jam-packed with POVs, each as deep and intricate AND entertaining as the last. I can’t say there was one that I was dreading, one that I had on auto-skip as I usually do in these long epic debuts. While I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy all your time reading this monster, I will predict you’ll find something you like within—something that will likely see you through to its conclusion.