Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Galaxy Game - Karen Lord

I read Karen Lord's novel The Best of All Possible Worlds about a year and a half ago and was very impressed by it. The Galaxy Game is a sequel of sorts. We get to see some familiar characters again but she shifts to a new main character, who played only a minor role in the first novel. It could probably be read independently, although the rich cultural background might be lost on some readers without having read the first book. The Galaxy Game has not been quite as well received as Lord's previous novel and I can see why. It is a decent  read but nowhere does it come close to achieving the level of The Best of All Possible Worlds.

Rafi's father had a psychic talent that he used to abuse his family for many years. When he was found out the authorities imprisoned him. Rafi has inherited his father's talent and to prevent him from ending up like his father, he is sent to Lyceum, a place where is supposed to learn to control his powers. His education is not going well though. Rafi has friends at the Lyceum but he is miserable there anyway. His mental abilities frighten him and progress in learning to deal with them is minimal. If he is to learn to accept and control his gift, he will have to go elsewhere. It is the start of a journey that will take him to several planets, but the real destination is adulthood.

Rafi, as you might have guessed is the nephew of Grace Delurua, the main character of The Best of All Possible Worlds. She plays a minor role in this novel. Grace is mostly busy with the Sadiri and their precarious position on the planet Cyngus to pay much attention to Rafi though. After leaving the Lyceum, a move that could turn him into a renegade, he leaves for a place where his abilities are more common and more widely accepted. It is a place that also embraces the one release he has from the nightmares and the stress of leaving home. The game is called Wallrunning and is of great cultural importance. It is played on a wall where gravity varies and tests the agility and three dimensional orientation of its players to the maximum. The rules of the game never become clear entirely though. Later on in the story, a link between interplanetary travel and the game pops up. The mechanics of this way of traveling are never explained but apparently the spacial orientation skills of the players has something to do with it. For the fan of hard science fiction this is a somewhat frustrating novel.

Hard science fiction is not what Lord is aiming for though. Her story is much more interested in cultural diversity. Rafi is exposed to a number of cultures during his travels and he doesn't understand most of them. I can't say I blame him. The variety is bewildering and the main reason why I think you should read The Best of All Possible Worlds first. Although on the level of the character, the story revolves around Rafi, another layer concerns itself with interplanetary politics which are almost impossible to understand without a bit of background information. The various races of humanity are in a major political and military struggle, the outcome of which will shape the universe for centuries to come. Rafi is caught right in the middle of it and, on top of his personal problems, has to find a place in the power structure of am alien culture he hardly understands. His choice in this regard is crucial to his personal safety and happiness.

Something that contributes to the bewildering tangle of cultures, faction, and races is the fact that while Rafi is the focal point of the novel, the point of view frequently shifts to other characters. They are mostly from different cultural backgrounds and face their own challenges. For one of the characters, she switches to a first person narrative, which makes the transitions between characters a bit bumpy sometimes. The plot itself is not all that complicated, it is after all a fairly straightforward Bildungsroman, but along the way Lord does her best to distract us with all sorts of other attractions. She does so to the point where I wondered once of twice why all this was relevant to the story.

Where in some areas, information seems hardly relevant, in other areas explanations are completely lacking. Some of the characters rely on modes of communication that do not rely on words and can be very difficult to follow. Rafi is supported and taking in by characters whose motivations remain largely unclear. For Rafi, who would most likely not have understood any explanation until much later anyway, this is more easy to accept than for the reader.

There is a great deal of background to this galaxy. A history that, despite all the things Lord has put into these two novels, is not yet fully revealed. There are a few hints in the novel that the situation on Earth might be explored further for instance. Given what we've learned of it so far that would certainly be interesting but it is but one of many possibilities. Lord has created a universe that allows many more directions for good stories. In this novel, she doesn't quite manage to find a story that allows her to show us her all of her creation though. Too often the reader comes across beautifully phrased but confusion bits of future history or interesting but only marginally relevant cultural observations. The Galaxy Game is not a big book but I think that in the hands of another author, it might have been a novella. I enjoyed at some level but compared to The Best of All Possible Worlds it was a mild disappointment.

Book Details

Title: The Galaxy Game
Author: Karen Lord
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 320
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-53407-1
First published: 2015


  1. I got an ARC of this novel, but I didn't feel right reviewing it, knowing I would have so many negative things to say. Summed up in one word, the novel is dry.

  2. That sums it up nicely yes. It took me quite a while to read it. Highly unusual for me.