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.
There’s no easy way to say it; I loathed this book.
I read through some other reviews while trying to put my thoughts together to write my own, and mostly it seemed like people were confused by the “world building” and disappointed that Mead was doing something different than she normally does. This really didn’t seem that different or new to me. Mae, the “heroine”, was basically an amalgamation of all the things I disliked about Rose from VA and Georgina from Succubus Blues, and Justin, the “hero”, was a less charming, less likeable version of Robert Downey Jr before he got clean.
But I’ll get to them later.
Speaking of Succubus Blues, the world building in this followed a similar theme, i.e. there was none. Oh sure, you’re fire-bombed with the random names for objects, places and peoples that Mead seemed to pick out of a hat and assign via the use of a complicated dart board system, but you’re given no explanation of the meanings behind these things until nearly a hundred pages in.
I suppose I should talk about the world building as far as I was able to comprehend it. Nearly the first hundred pages take place outside of the country that now seems to rule the western world. It’s called RUNA. Want to know what the letters stand for? You’ll have to wait until page 79.
Yup, for 78 pages and 46 mentions of the word RUNA, Mead keeps you guessing. No, I don’t know why. While reading it, I was convinced it was some new literary mechanism designed to stress test a reader’s cardiovascular health, but that seems a little farfetched in retrospect. Oh, it’s also spelled out in the book blurb. Someone actually called me out on this, but I received this book as an ARC, and at the time, there was no explanation in the blurb. Part of me (the narcissistic part) wonders if someone at the publishing house added it in after reading this rant.
The people that live in RUNA are called Gemmas, and while you might suspect this before it’s spelled out (on page 82), you might, like me, be so confused by all the other mysteries that you begin to think they could very well be alien overlords instead.
Before you can get to RUNA—which we’re led to believe is some sort of utopian paradise—you have to first bear witness to the near complete breakdown of society as you know it in one of RUNA’s provinces, Panama. Its here you learn about the complicated and overtly racist caste system of the “modern” society in this world. Every citizen of RUNA is even forced to go through genetic testing and assigned a number 1-10 based on how attractive they are and it seems that race directly ties into that.
No, I’m not fucking kidding.
We’re told that at some time in the past RUNA and the EA (Eastern Alliance—basically Asia) swapped large parts of their populations in order to genetically mix humanity. If you refused to participate, you were fined and imprisoned, so a lot of people fled to the provinces to avoid these punishments and have kids with the people they loved instead of those they were assigned to, or however it worked. I only read to page 240 before giving up so if it’s explained why later, I missed it.
The people that descend from this western-eastern mix are called Plebians (no not plebeian, thank you Google) and as in the ancient Roman society RUNA is modeled after, they’re pretty much second class citizens.
People whose genetics are less diverse are called castals or Patricians but more specifically Nordic, Welsh, etc etc. Like in ancient Rome, they’re the elite. They even live on their own land grants together with their borders on lock down to keep out those interloping Plebs. This would be the first point that I nearly quit.
Oh hello, segregation. Welcome back. No one but these guys missed you:
Curious about how after all this forced genetic mixing there is still a population of genetically “purer” humans around with enough numbers to have their own land? And also how they escaped the forced mixing? You’ll find out 159 pages in and be both irritated and reminded of The Selection.
In Panama you also learn that classism is still in full swing in the provinces, but instead of being in its current state or a more evolved form, it has devolved to closely resemble that of 18th century European aristocracy. Women of “good breeding” don’t go out in public alone, they don’t wear their hair down or don *gasp* pants, and when they reach marriageable age, their parents expend large amounts of money to buy them a trousseau and send them off to society functions to find a husband. They’re poorly educated, relegated to second class citizenship, and are basically only good for breeding. This would be the second point that I nearly quit.
When you finally do get to RUNA, aka utopia, you learn of a society built on religious intolerance, racism, and consumerism gone wild. Paradise? Hmmm, not mine.
Now on to the characters. The story is primarily told through three perspectives. Mae is a cold, detached, semi-sociopathic, racist Robocop. Justin is a drug addicted, womanizing label whore. And lastly, there is Tessa, whose sole reason for existence (at least in the first 240 pages) is to make Justin seem like less of a self-centered asshole. I’m not even going to get into Justin and Mae’s “relationship” other than to say that it was completely childish and if I wrote more about it everyone would have to start an f-bomb count.
Oh, also…gods are interested in them. I don’t know why, because they couldn’t even hold MY interest long enough for me to finish the book, and so I have no idea what type of redeeming qualities a deity found within them.
Like the world in which they live, you only get snippets of their pasts as the book progresses. This is dangerous for a number of reasons. I feel that if an author waits too long to show the reader the reasons behind a character’s behavior they run the risk of their audience passing some critical “I don’t give a shit, this character is a douche” point.
If your main characters act like spoiled, selfish children for the first two hundred pages then I (the reader) begin to believe that’s all they are. I formed a seriously negative opinion of them and when I finally DID begin to get some of their back stories it was too late because I’d already judged them and written them off.
Lastly I’d like to talk about the Frankenscience in this book. With the entire interwebs at your fingertips there is no need for it anymore. Not when a simple Google search can tell you things like why the human body needs sleep or how the brain, liver and your body’s metabolism function. I’m no science geek and even I noticed how many inconsistencies there were. Why are they there? They were unnecessary. There were so many ways that the same information could have been explained to make the science at least plausible. Ugh.
In short, this book could have been great. It really could have. The plot was there, the world had potential and the mystery was good too. What killed this book for me was the way in which it was executed, the way in which petty, high-school style drama was introduced into nearly every scene. If there wasn’t so much glaring (and hard to swallow) racism and sexism, if there was no romantic element, or if Mead had created more mature characters, I could have loved it, I think. Sadly, I didn’t.
But hey, this is just my opinion.