Karen Lord – The Galaxy Game

Posting an honest review in exchange for a free copy of a book is a good deal, no question. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel slightly guilty when I don’t like a book that was given to me for free. Sure, writing reviews – positive or negative – generates buzz and will probably do the book’s sales more good than harm. But of course I’d prefer to only read books I love rather than ones that disappoint me the way this one did.

GALAXYgame_R.inddTHE GALAXY GAME
by Karen Lord

Published by: Jo Fletcher Books, 2015
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: The Best of All Possible Worlds #2 (sort of)
My rating: 4/10

First sentence: The only cure for a sleepless night was to lie in bed and watch the constellations projected on his ceiling.

For years, Rafi Delarua saw his family suffer under his father’s unethical use of psionic power. Now the government has Rafi under close watch but, hating their crude attempts to analyse his brain, he escapes to the planet Punartam, where his abilities are the norm, not the exception. Punartam is also the centre for his favourite sport, wallrunning – and thanks to his best friend, he has found a way to train with the elite.

But Rafi soon realises he’s playing quite a different game, for the galaxy is changing; unrest is spreading and the Zhinuvian cartels are plotting, making the stars a far more dangerous place to aim. There may yet be one solution – involving interstellar travel, galactic power and the love of a beautiful game.

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In The Best of All Possible Worlds, a book I needed to start twice but ended up loving, Grace Delarua was a fascinating character. Her nephew, Rafi, grew up in strange and difficult circumstances, giving him the potential to be even more exciting to follow than his aunt. The book blurb makes it sound like this story follows Rafi as a main character. That is a lie.

My problems with The Galaxy Game all lead to one big mistake by the author – not picking a main character. There simply was none. Rafi felt more like a side character, showing up occasionally but never being the center of the plot. Rafi’s friend Ntenman tells his parts of the story through first person narrative (for some unfathomable reason, because he is also not the protagonist). Add to that a whole bunch of other side characters, whose parts – like Rafis’s – are told through third person. Sometimes the jumps between first and third person happen within one chapter. One should think that the singled-out first person narrator in a story otherwise told through third person is supposed to be the center of the plot. But that is also not true. We have Rafi, we have Ntenman (who is, unlike the others, at least interesting), there is Serendipity, there are a bunch of others whose names become more and more ridiculous and unpronouncable, and there are cameos by old friends from the first book.

I simply didn’t know who to hold on to. Whose story was I following here exactly? Then again, there are many great novels that don’t focus on one character but on a large cast. If that is what the author wants to do, great, but then they should be careful that the connections between characters and the story that is told make sense.

The Galaxy Game starts out well enough. The prologue offers a glimpse into the future, showing us Rafi as he will be. Now, what drove me to read on was wanting to find out how he got to be that person, how he came to be in that place at that time. The first part of the novel is still somewhat coherent. It introduces Rafi and his two friends, Ntenman and Serendipity, as well as showing the life Grace and Dllenakh are leading now. Considering Rafi’s past experience with psi-abilities, I was hoping for more insight into that sort of life. The Lyceum is a school exactly for kids like Rafi, kids who don’t know their own power yet and should learn to use it fairly. But we don’t get to see any of that. At least Rafi and his friends are introduced and we learn of their relationships with each other, secret crushes included.

But once Rafi leaves for Punartam, things go topsy turvy. I liked certain ideas that Karen Lord presents in this book but none of them were fleshed out enough for me really get into. Social networks have extremely high value on Punartam, and ones connections can even be used like currency. To this moment, I don’t fully understand the wallrunning game – whether that is my fault for reading when tired or Karen Lord’s fault for explaining it badly, I can’t say. The people Rafi meets on Punartam all blur together in my memory. Not only are their at least seven-syllabic names impossible to remember, some of their names were so similar that I confused two characters that really shouldn’t be confused. This may sound nitpicky but choosing names is an important part of writing a good story. The names took me out of what was already a weak plot. I frequently put the book away and only picked it up out of a feeling of obligation (because review copy).

Also on Punartam, we are shown some political difficulties the galaxy is facing. There are talks about transportation, about New Sadira going crazy about keeping its “pure” bloodlines alive (references to which will only make sense if you’ve read The Best of All Possible Worlds, btw.) and there is an underworld and bets about Wallrunning games, and I don’t even know what the point of it all was. The story lacked focus. It was all over the place but stayed nowhere for long enough. Is it about a futuristic sport? About exploring different cultures? About a young man growing up? Intergalactic politics? Well, none of the above but also kind of all of them. It felt like the author tried to stuff too many things into one story and – because of that – didn’t focus on any of them properly.

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Later in the novel, politics become more and more important (and less and less understandable) and Big Changes may happen to upset the order of the entire world. But, seeing as I never had a chance to care for any of the characters, these events left me cold and unimpressed. See, a book with bad plot and great characters is still a good book. A book with bad characters and a riveting plot may be a decent summer read. But a book with a jumpy plot, no focus, and mediocre, underdeveloped characters – that’s just not a good book, no matter how I twist and turn it.

I was very disappointed, especially because The Best of All Possible Worlds was such a careful, character-focused story in a world that had so much potential. The Galaxy Game reads like a hurried effort to write a quasi-sequel without plan or plot or care. I still love Grace Delarua and Dllenakh, but I can’t say I will remember Rafi, Ntenman or any of the others long after reading The Galaxy Game. I really like Karen Lord, but this book was a galaxy-sized mess.

MY RATING: 4/10  – Not  good

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#Diversiverse Review: Karen Lord – The Best of All Possible Worlds

diversiverse3I’m a little ashamed to admit how long this book has been sitting on my TBR pile. I got a review copy right before it first came out and have only managed to finish it now. But being unread for a while is no judgement on the book’s quality and I am so glad I read this for Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe challenge. I liked this much more than Redemption in Indigo despite some minor qualms.

untitledTHE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS
by Karen Lord

Published by: Del Rey, 2013
Ebook: 325 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: He always set aside twelve days of his annual retreat to finish reports and studies, and that left twelve more for everything else.

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team—one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive—just may find in each other their own destinies . . . and a force that transcends all.

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I know Karen Lord as a playful, witty writer who retold a Senegalese folktale in Redemption in Indigo. As she ventures into science fiction, she shows that there is much more to her than that.

As the Sadiri’s home planet is destroyed and they lose the majority of their population in one blow, extinction seems inevitable. A small group of Sadiri come to the planet Cygnus Beta to scout for appropriate wives for the largely male survivors of the disaster. With a deep desire to keep their culture and genetic lines alive, finding fitting wives is not an easy task.
Grace Delarua, the narrator of this story, joins the Sadiri on their mission and travels across the planet for likely candidates to help the Sadiri race survive.

Delarua’s narration is fresh and charming, full of humor and passion, and so creates the perfect balance between her personality and that of the Sadiri, above them all Dllenahkh, seemingly cold and reserved. The Sadiri, renowned telepaths, keep their emotions to themselves, if indeed they have any. Their thoughts are impossible to read on their faces, their body language gives away nothing. To juxtapose such people with open and outspoken Delarua just made their differences more visible and the entire book more interesting. Discovering more about Sadiri culture, about their customs and their use of telepathy, is what kept me reading wide-eyed and curiously.

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Once the group of scientists set off on their journey, among them gender-neutral Lian, the Sadiri Dllenahkh, Nasiha, and Tarik, as well as Cygnian doctor Queturah, the story becomes somewhat episodic. Every chapter narrates their discoveries in a different settlement which, most of the time, has little to do with whatever they learned in the last one. At this point, the novel felt a little stitched together like a quilt of smaller stories, none of them boring, but none of them properly glued together either. Some of these earlier chapters have no consequence on the larger plot whatsoever, others are an opportunity to give the characters depth and show the readers more about them. The visit to Delarua’s family, for example, opened a world of questions, only some of which are answered. It was a great exercise in world-building without bogging down the narration, of character growth and development on several levels, and it was the point – for me – where the story really kicked off.

After that, Karen Lord put more focus on her characters and their reaction to whatever settlement they visit at the time. What fascinated me most, apart from Sadiri culture in general, was the sense of doom hanging over Dllenahkh at all times. By losing their home planet, most Sadiri have lost people close to them. Partners, children, parents, and grandparents, and that tragedy is felt in almost every chapter. To make things worse, they are facing extinction if they don’t find suitable wives for their single (or newly-single) men to keep the race going. They are a proud people and want to keep their culture alive as well as their genetics. It’s not just about finding a wife they like but it’s about genetic and cultural compatibility. As they pass settlement after settlement without much success, their desperation becomes more and more clear. Karen Lord does a phenomenal job of conveying that dread and fear without ever actually saying it. No exposition is needed as it becomes clear through the characters’ actions and emotions. And, yes, after a while, the readers learn to interpret Sadiri emotions, just as Delarua does.

best of all possible worlds alt coverThe closer to the end you get, the clearer it becomes that The Best of All Possible Worlds is also a love story. Furtive glances, accidental touches, and all the other little things that people do to get closer to each other, are difficult enough within one’s own culture. Try the same thing across two cultures that are so vastly different and you’ve got a really thrilling tale of romance. For the romance-deniers among you, don’t worry. There is nothing cheesy or cliché about this story. Even the end, which felt a little too perfect at first glance, struck me as utterly real and honest after a little while.

I had started reading this book around its publication and then stopped reading because its episodic nature made it easy to put down after a chapter. This time, I pushed through the beginning up to the moment I got hooked. And then there was no stopping me. I enjoyed this far more than the author’s debut, Redemption in Indigo, simply because it focused more on characters and matters that offer food for thought. Culture, race, gender, relationships, they all find a place in The Best of All Possible Worlds, and they do so effortlessly. Nothing feels forced, nothing feels fake. Sure, the narration could have used some tightening, some red thread to follow, especially in the early chapters, but even those weren’t ever boring.

I think Karen Lord is finding her voice (in a delightful way, might I add) and I believe she will only get better and better. I am now really curious about the quasi-sequel, The Galaxy Game, which will follow Delarua’s nephew Rafi. The author has created a fantastic world, one that I’m not done exploring.

RATING: 8/10  –  Excellent

EDIT: Squee! I got an e-ARC of The Galaxy Game via NetGalley. Thank you, my day is made. Now I only need to restrain myself until January (or its vicinity) before reading and posting a review.

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Karen Lord – Redemption in Indigo

Originally, I had planned to read Lord’s new book The Best of All Possible Worlds first but couldn’t really get into the right mood. I loved the writing style, but the time wasn’t right for a science fiction travelogue/love story, and so I thought, why not read her debut novel first? While very different in style and premise, it intrigued me in a similar way. The novel stands out for its originality and its freshness, not for its plot. I had a lot of fun for a couple of hours and Lord is a talented writer that I’ll be following.

redemption in indigoREDEMPTION IN INDIGO
by Karen Lord

Published by: Small Beer Press, 2010
ISBN: 0043339158
ebook: 200 pages
Standalone

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily.

Paama’s husband is a fool and a glutton. Bad enough that he followed her to her parents’ home in the village of Makendha—now he’s disgraced himself by murdering livestock and stealing corn. When Paama leaves him for good, she attracts the attention of the undying ones—the djombi— who present her with a gift: the Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world. Unfortunately, a wrathful djombi with indigo skin believes this power should be his and his alone.

Bursting with humor and rich in fantastic detail, Redemption in Indigo is a clever, contemporary fairy tale that introduces readers to a dynamic new voice in Caribbean literature. Lord’s world of spider tricksters and indigo immortals is inspired in part by a Senegalese folk tale—but Paama’s adventures are fresh, surprising, and utterly original.

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When you start reading Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, you will not be able to say just where the story begins. It is narrated in such a way that makes you believe another person is telling you the story, frequently breaking the fourth wall, jumping ahead in time or space, explaining to you that a character might not be all bad, despite what you’ve seen him do. Redemption in Indigo is almost like a conversation between reader and storyteller.

The first few chapters are a retelling of the Senegalese folktale “Ansige Karamba, the glutton” but Lord decided that the story shouldn’t end there. Paama is a magnificent cook, famed throughout the land for her culinary creations. Her husband is a glutton – a match made in heaven, one might think. If it weren’t for Ansige’s foolishness when it comes to food. He will eat anything, especially if he suspects somebody else so much as looks at his food. And Ansige considers all food his food. When he embarrasses himself and Paama in her own hometown, she decides to leave him, once and for all.

Ansige’s escapades in search of more food may be troubling and mortifying for Paama, but they were delightfully funny to read. Karen Lord takes on a fairy tale-esque narrative style, infused with a subtle sense of humor. In this very slim novel, she manages fantastic characterization that rivals many bigger books. She features strong women, several djombi, and to my particular delight – Anansi, the trickster god. And every single one of them is drawn with precision and love for humanity. In all their flaws and ugliness, their beauty and virtues, these characters jump from the page, and take residency in your head for a while.

Lord juxtaposes the magical with the mundane without effort and in case the reader is worried about the physics of it all, the narrator preemts any concerns.

quotes greyI know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit? My answer to that is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region. Second, you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they regularly made themselves known? For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase “I am a pawnbroker” in any known human language? Think! These creatures do not truly talk, nor are they truly animals, but they do encounter human folk, and when they do, they carefully take with them all memory of the meeting. (page 20)

redemption in indigo1My favorite part was easily Ansige’s tribulations but the story really starts when Paama is given the Chaos Stick, a wooden stick holding the power of making the possible probable, and so changing the course of the world, butterfly effect style. This idea really spoke to me and wouldn’t have minded seeing more of it. Being the central McGuffin of this tale, the Chaos Stick actually takes a place in the background when we are introduced to the Indigo Lord, a djombi fallen from grace. All I’m going to say is that Karen Lord kept more than one surprise up her sleeve when it came to him.

As you’ve probably guessed, I absolutely loved the beginning of the book and I enjoyed the rest of it. But at times I felt that it tried to encompass too much for such a limited amount of pages. I can’t say that any of the characters wasn’t fleshed out enough, even Paama’s sister felt real to me (not necessarily likable, but real). I can’t complain about the story arc, or Paama’s development. But there were side characters whose fate interested me and I never got to read about anymore. The narrative voice, while being utterly enchanting, also kept some distance between me and the characters, making it harder to fully engage with them.

Overall, this was a charming fairytale, retold and continued by a writer well worth following. Karen Lord brings something fresh and new into fantasy, not just because she used an African folktale as inspiration but because she breaks the rules and boundaries of what much of the genre is doing at the moment. And I just love trying new things.

THE GOOD: A funny, light tale with every word in its place, great characters and a wonderful ending.
THE BAD: The characters were somewhat distant, some side characters deserved more screen time. Plotwise a bit forgettable in the end.
THE VERDICT: Recommended for everyone who wants something different than you average epic fantasy. This is a perfect book for a cozy afternoon, spent with trickster gods, objects controlling chaos, creatures with indigo skin, and one woman in the middle of it all.

RATING: 7/10 –  Very good