The Galaxy Game

Too much rule­book, not enough game­play

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Rated / Cinema -

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.

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