It feels as though it’s all about the Vampire Academy YA series when it comes to Richelle Mead nowadays – but IIRC, my first encounter with her writing was via her Georgina Kincaid adult UF series. While the pacing could be uneven at times, Georgina/Seth’s on-off relationship and the ever-higher stakes kept me hooked and *whispers* I actually preferred it to the VA series/spin-offs. So when I heard that Richelle Mead was kicking off a new SFF series aimed at adults, I was all excited about the first Age of X book, GAMEBOARD OF THE GODS.
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.
Gameboard of the Gods, the first installment of Richelle Mead’s Age of X series, will have all the elements that have made her YA Vampire Academy and Bloodlines series such megasuccesses: sexy, irresistible characters; romantic and mythological intrigue; and relentless action and suspense.
First up, fair warning. I found GAMEBOARD incredibly confusing to get into. And I say this as someone who hates infodumps upfront – I love books that force you to figure out how the world works as you read, instead of explaining every nth detail in the first chapter. But GAMEBOARD defeated me and after the first couple of chapters, I looked up Age of X’s history and background on Ms Mead’s blog. I’m cutting some slack due to the whole first book-in-series thing, but still – I shouldn’t have to.
As for the main characters, I took a while to warm up to both Mae and Justin. Neither are shown in their best light at the start of the book, partly as they’re presented as diametrical opposites to maximise conflict, I’m guessing – but the slow reveal of their backstories gave them more dimension, and it’ll be good to see how they (and their relationship) develop. Slightly ironically, seeing that I was looking forward to reading Mead’s adult POVs, Tessa, the teenager “adopted” by Justin, stole the show in this book for me, even if Justin’s sponsorship of Tessa came out of nowhere (or maybe I missed the reasoning while trying to puzzle my way through the first few chapters). Apart from the fact that Tessa was portrayed the most sympathetically out of the three, she was also new to RUNA, and seeing the world through her eyes helped me understand it more. The cast of supporting characters – Mae’s praetorian friends, Justin’s sister – added some light humour to the book – and oh, did I mention Justin’s invisible ravens? I loved them.
Once I figured out how the pieces all fitted together, the story really got moving for me. It’s a murder mystery/whodunnit at heart (one of my favourites!), wrapped up within an intriguing SFF hybrid setting. Ms Mead’s futuristic world explicitly touches on racial identity (genetic mixing was enforced to deal with a virus that almost decimated the world) – it’s a brave play and I hope she doesn’t shy away from tackling the obvious questions around this in future books. Religion, or rather, the official lack of, is also front and centre in this book, and sets the stage for some potentially interesting exploration. There’s some fast-moving action towards the end of the book as the various strands come together, and it ended on a satisfying note with just enough questions to set up the next book.
Despite some patchy world-building, GAMEBOARD OF THE GODS worked for me and I closed the book looking forward to finding out what happens next.
Review based on an ARC courtesy of the publisher/NetGalley.