The Galaxy Game
Too much rulebook, not enough gameplay
Karen Lord’s follow- up to The Best Of All Possible Worlds is a coming- of- age tale about a telepathic teen.
Release Date: 1 January
352 pages | Hardback/ ebook Author: Karen Lord Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books tempting to describe Barbadian author Karen Lord’s latest as her difficult second album. The Galaxy Game may be her third novel, rather than her second, but it’s her first sequel, and it has the feel of a book struggling to make the transition onto a bigger canvas and deal with readers’ greater expectations.
The story’s primary focus is Rafi, teenage nephew of linguist and diplomat Grace Delarua, the heroine of Lord’s previous novel The Best Of All Possible Worlds ( 2013). Rafi is a boy with, it’s fair to say, some tough issues to overcome. For many years, Rafi’s telepathic father used his psionic abilities to abuse his family; while the father’s now out of the picture, Rafi’s inheritance of his old man’s powers means he’s viewed with unease and suspicion by both his surviving family and the government of his home world, Cygnus Beta. As the novel opens,
It’s more than a little
Rafi has been shipped off to a boarding school for children with unruly talents of various sorts, a place where he can be more closely monitored and controlled. We follow Rafi’s efforts to claw back some freedom, deal with his father’s legacy and learn to play the gravity- defying game of Wallrunning, all against a backdrop of interplanetary politicking and the looming threat of warfare over a trade dispute.
The combination is not an entirely satisfying one. The problem stems from the choice of focus: Lord makes big events play second fiddle to a coming- of- age tale. She did a similar thing in The Best Of All Possible Worlds, where the unexpected focus was both the point and the appeal: the earlier volume was explicitly about a people coming to terms with a world- changing event, and trying to rebuild themselves and their culture in the ruins that remained, rather than about the event itself. Game, meanwhile, is interested in the way older generations’ actions echo down through the lives of the younger, shaping who they are and what possibilities are open to them – the effects of parents on their children, teachers on their students, political leaders on their successors – and so concentrating on the people growing up in a transformed world, rather than the ones who transformed it, makes plenty of thematic sense.
Unfortunately, the technique doesn’t work as well the second time round. As with Worlds, the pacing of Game is uneven and the structure sometimes frustrating in its habit of cutting away from what, in other novels, would be key emotional moments and plot developments. But where these things were forgivable in the previous novel because Grace’s story was endlessly inventive, in Game what is foregrounded at the expense of the big events simply isn’t as absorbing: Rafi as a character isn’t compelling enough to carry things on his own. Rather more interesting is his schoolfriend ( and the novel’s occasional narrator) Ntenman, a self‑aware and wryly funny misfit teen with his own father issues. The novel comes to life whenever he’s speaking to the reader.
Lord’s world- building is richly and carefully imaginative. She grounds the various cultures in the ways that custom and worldview shape people’s daily interactions,
Lord’s worldbuilding is richly imaginative
giving the places Rafi encounters on his travels a sense of heft and history that’s sometimes lacking elsewhere in the genre. The bulk of the novel is set in Punartam, whose elaborate systems of social and kinship networks Rafi must navigate. But there’s a lot of reliance on infodumping, rather than details being organically discovered through Rafi’s story.
In her past work, Lord has set high standards for herself. After the anarchic delights of her Crawford Award- winning debut novel Redemption In Indigo ( 2012) and the thoughtful comedy of manners and culture clash of The Best Of All Possible Worlds, The Galaxy Game is, unfortunately, a disappointment. Nic Clarke Lord has a PhD in the sociology of religion from Bangor University; no wonder her worldbuilding has weight.