I've heard a lot about Richelle Mead, of the acclaimed Vampire Academy Series
and Georgina Kincaid Series
, but I haven't read them. So I was able to go into this book free of prejudices (good and bad) and judge this book for what it was.
RUNA is technologically advanced, godless society, and it has servitors who stamped out religions (those that they deemed dangerous) and praetorians (super soldiers) who uphold the national security. Justin March is a servitor, who was discredited in his last mission and therefore exiled to Panama for the last four years. However, someone has been killing patricians (aristocrats) in recent months, and with recent clues to the doings of a religious cult, Internal Security decided to bring back its top servitor to solve the crime. As the job is dangerous, Mae was assigned to protect him, Mae whose beauty captivated him, yet wanting her was a trap he had no wish to fall into. He thought he'd solve the case with his cunning and brilliance, but what they didn't foresee was that the gods are moving, and they're coming back to reclaim the humans who had rejected them...
I normally don't like to read about gods and goddesses, having had a bad experience years ago when I read David Eddings' Sparhawk books, where there's this goddess who favored Sparhawk who later incarnated to be his daughter while retaining her full powers. What?!?! That made me hate the entire series, and more so especially when this goddess proved annoying. However, I'm glad to see that that isn't the case here. The gods and goddesses in this book are powerful, yes, but they're limited by their elect, priests, prophets, followers. I hope this limitation doesn't change during the rest of the series or I'll be seriously pissed. It's okay to create powerful beings and give them the run of your world, however, you have to establish rules and boundaries within which they can run. Even powerful gods and goddesses shouldn't be able to break the rules that you have set in your world, or it'll be chaos.
The worldbuilding was pretty good, with rich details and vivid descriptions; I could totally foresee the futuristic society in RUNA described in the book happening several decades into the future. After all, we've already come a long way in terms of technology; what's a few more steps for geniuses like Steve Jobs? I like that there are different kinds of societies in the book--the first-world, sophisticated country like RUNA, and a third-world, backward province like Panama. Having lived in both first-world and third-world countries, I can believe such disparate worlds exist at the same time on the same plane. Not only that, but each place serves as a contrast to the other. In this, I think the inclusion of Tessa, as a provincial girl who had the good fortune to go to RUNA, is a smart move, as it allows us to see RUNA through the eyes of someone who's seeing it for the first time, like us. Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if Tessa also serves another role later on. Right now, she's Justin's prodigy, and already her observations are helping him. She's a great major character; I like reading and seeing things from her POV. And no, she's not Justin's love interest; she's a sixteen-year-old girl who's trying her wings out as Justin's ward. That scene with Val and Dag, Mae's praetorian friends, is a hoot. Tessa's observations are astute, especially this one sentence, when she was at a concert where her friends in this godless society are all agog about the band:
"It was another of those moments when Tessa was struck by how an antireligious country managed to find gods without even realizing it."
That sentence struck me only because it pretty much describes our society today. We think of gods as those we worship in churches or temples, but there are also other gods as well that people don't consciously think they're worshiping but that they are--money, knowledge, celebrities, etc.
Mae Koskinen is a cold, haughty, super soldier, able to kick ass (literally) and whip out a gun faster than you can blink. Think Lara Croft. Somehow, I like her though, because she embodies girl power. Instead of the guy protecting the girl, in this story, it's Mae protecting Justin's ass. And, I like it. She serves as a role model for girls who've been told that they can't do this or that, whose voices are silenced, or who are "forced" into cultural or traditional roles instead of being allowed to find their own way. She feels deeply, but she's been trained by both her patrician upbringing and praetorian training to keep emotions hidden and not to show anything on her face.
Justin March is a hero you love to hate. Mainly because his denial stage regarding Mae went on a bit long. However, thinking about his situation, I suppose you can't blame him; I would probably be as ambivalent as him. He is also womanizer and abuser of alcohol and substance. I don't know what that says or what message the book is sending out that we have a man like that for a hero. And that he needs all those because he needs to shut his brain down sometimes. Hmm... I'm not sure I like him. But he is brilliant, and fiercely loyal to his family (which includes Tessa). So he does have redeeming qualities, and he's strangely fascinated with Mae. He also has two talking ravens inside his head, and while it was initially a mystery why and how they could be there and be conversing with him, we can see early on in the story that they serve some master that Justin didn't want to serve. Immediately, there's conflict there and a mystery that piques the interest. So I hope he grows up over the course of the series.
Richelle Mead's writing style is easy to read, and she drops mysterious facts and hints about or concerning the characters throughout the book that compels you to read on. Sometimes though, I wish she'd include a one-liner that explains things so that readers aren't left bewildered. Example, the first time she mentions "ree", it's in connection with Mae's praetorian friend Chow. At that point, the author could've written a simple, one-line explanation of what ree is. The reader could've understood the context at that point and at the second mention, understood the power of ree. As it is, I believe it's only in the third mention that ree was explained. I understand the need to keep some things unexplained initially, like the comment about stars and flowers, the presence of the ravens, etc, but surely ree doesn't fall into that province.
However, for the really important terms, like what does RUNA stand for, there's a glossary at the end of the book. It comes in handy to understand the terms and thus the story. Also, before reading, it'll be good to take a peek at the author's website where she gave an overview of her world, as well as character sketches of her three main principals: Mae, Justin and Tessa. I stumbled onto it by accident, and it was a big help in understanding the story, especially in places where there was no explanation until later on in the book. Perhaps the author means to avoid info dumps, and also perhaps, the book needs another pass at edits. The hazard of writing about a new world is to work out the balance of giving enough details so as to enhance reader enjoyment of the story and not go over the line of info dumping.
GAMEBOARD OF THE GODS is a great story, and while it may have been slow to start, some of the events/scenes were needed to set up the story and introduce the readers to the world of RUNA. I found them interesting and I enjoyed getting to know the world that Richelle Mead has built.
I would've given this a rating of 5 stars, but I knocked one star off because the romance sucks plus some other small stuff I have complaints about. But mainly because of the romance. In fact, there's no romance at all, except for Mae and Justin dancing around each other. Justin had good reason not to want to fall for Mae, and so he held her off at arms' length. At the end, I think he even sort of gave her up to another. Sucks, right? Oh, and I hate his dog in the manger attitude. He "just didn't want to give her up" to some other guy, but he can have his numerous women? Give me a break. At this point, I'm not even sure Justin is the right man for her, except that she seemed to be hung up on him. I'm only hoping that either their romantic development have some sort of advance in the next books or that they each find the partner they deserve. After thinking it over, I think we're merely seeing the tip of the iceberg in their romantic development. As a romance reader, I'm used to the romance being resolved by the end of the book, and that's not the case here. I think the author is developing their relationship little by little, with lots of advance and retreat. In the meantime, I think they've gotten to become friends. Certainly, they confided in each other things that they hadn't told anyone else. That has to count for something, right? And, I expect Justin to GROVEL BIG TIME before he gets Mae. I would be disappointed otherwise.
One more thing: I do have to say that Justin must be so special that the god would do so much for him in order to acquire his allegiance. I look forward to seeing what Justin does have and what he can do for this god that the god indulged him again and again. I also find it a fun irony that for all his sidestepping and getting out on a technicality, Justin would be bound by what he himself did. Or said.
Anyway, it's a great start to what promises to be a amazing series. I can't wait to read the next book, The Immortal Crown.