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.The setting is a not-too-near future world without space travel (hence not being space opera, although one could make a case for space opera confined to Earth and with no aliens...) but with fancier technology, a good step above what we have now, and super soldiers. After some global strife caused by a few things, some large nations arose to govern more efficiently. The RUNA is one of them, as is the EA (Eastern Alliance), although we see less of them. Outside of these nations life is a bit harsher, less technological and more dangerous, particularly in the sense that there is much less gun control. Within these nations, people are surprisingly segregated in some regards. For example, Mae is a member of the Nordic caste — and there are other castes, like Celtic and Nipponese — which means that her family lives in a Nordic enclave of homogeneity and looks down on plebeians, ordinary people. Outside of castes reproduction is regulated based on genetic compatibility in an attempt to control/eliminate a genetic disease which castals tend to suffer from.
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.
Among our three main characters, we have a reasonably broad representation of different groups (albeit the affluent ends of the groups). Mae is Nordic, Justin a plebeian and Tessa, his ward, comes from the "province" of Panama, which lies outside RUNA. It was interesting to be able to see the breadth of the society from each of their perspectives.
After the aforementioned global strife, the RUNA and friends started regulating religion, granting licenses only to benign cults. I've heard some people call Gameboard of the Gods a dystopia and this is honestly the only reason I can guess for that. And quite frankly, regulating religions and their powers seems like a great idea to me, even before we see some of the worrying antics they get up to in this book. (But really this is not a dystopian novel. The government isn't evil, the people aren't oppressed, and the plot does not seem to be leading up to a revolution or the need for one.) The most interesting thing about the religious regulations is that, as it turns out, the gods are real. Most people aren't aware of that, and this fact is central to the plot. The gods work similarly to in Pratchett's Small Gods, but with bigger gods from various cultures, for those of you who've read that.
I particularly enjoyed the writing in Gameboard of the Gods. Unlike Mead's YA novels, there is less witty banter in the dialogue — but not none — and the story deals with more adult matters such as politics and casual sex. However, just because it's written in a slightly more serious style does not prevent it being a very compelling read. If anything, I'd say it's better written than the Bloodlines books (which are similar to but fresher in my memory than the Vampire Academy books) in terms of style at least. I was expecting to read it alternately with another book, but I ended up being so drawn in I had difficulty putting it down.
Gameboard of the Gods was an excellent read. I recommend it to fans of science fiction and science fantasy. The fantasy element comes solely from the existence of the gods and otherwise this would be a science fiction novel. I'm not usually particularly enamoured of science fantasy, but this one really worked for me. I would suggest that liking or not Mead's YA books bears little relevance to liking Gameboard of the Gods. If the blurb and what I've talked about sounds appealing to you, definitely give this one a read. Although it's the first of a series, it's quite self contained. I am looking forward to reading the next book, but I'm not dying of cliffhanger. Actually what I'm hoping for is more info on the Decline and how northern America acquired some of its castes (some seem obvious extensions of ghetto-like cultural groupings, but some seem a bit random to me, like the Nordic or Celtic ones). Hopefully it won't be a terribly long wait until book 2.
5 / 5 stars
First published: June 2013, Penguin (US and Aus and probably rest of English regions)
Series: Age of X book 1 of ?
Format read: eARC
Source: the publisher, via NetGalley