The trouble with reviewing a Karen Lord novel is that you know you are dealing with a very smart author. This causes (at least) two problems. Firstly you have to somehow tiptoe your way around all of the subtle ideas in the book to make sure that you don’t give too much away. And second, you know that next time you see Karen she will smile knowingly at you, and you’ll know you need to go back and re-read the book to see what you missed.
Here I go, cautiously embarrassing myself.
The Galaxy Game is pretty much a direct sequel to The Best of All Possible Worlds. There’s a prologue that is set a few decades into the future, but after that we skip back to just a few years after the previous book. The central character is not Grace Delarua, though she does feature in the narrative. Rather Lord has chosen to tell us the story of Grace’s nephew, Rafi Abowen.
Those of you who have read The Best of All Possible Worlds will remember that Rafi’s father was a powerful and abusive telepath. Rafi has inherited strong psi talents, and wants to avoid misusing them. He ends up in The Lyceum, a special school for the Abnormally Gifted. This, however, is not an X-Men story, or a Harry Potter one. Rafi and his two young friends, Ntenman and Serendipity, soon find themselves out in the galaxy at a time of great political upheaval.
The book is quite a slow starter. For a long time you’ll think that this is nothing more than a story of a troubled young man finding himself through professional sport. (Yes, you did read that correctly.) But not all is as it seems, and around page 200 Lord drops a massive revelation about the sport that Rafi plays. From then on you are in the middle of a fairly fast-paced piece of space opera.
There are several themes in play here. Chief amongst them is that of a society undergoing a period of instability, with associated security paranoia. The destruction of the planet Sadira, which opens The Best of All Possible Worlds, is still a major political issue. The surviving Sadiri, who are mostly male, have stated to go to extreme lengths to secure full-blood wives. This inevitably brings them into conflict with Grace, Dllenahkh and the small community of Sadiri-in-exile that they have set up on Cygnus Beta. Meanwhile the rest of the galaxy is starting to discover what life is like without the moralistic and officious Sadiri around to play policeman so that they don’t have to.
Don’t expect this to be a shoot-out with space battles, however. In a Karen Lord novel, conflict is solved by diplomacy. You look for mutually beneficial trading opportunities that might make it less attractive to go to war. Failing all else, you put together an alliance and drop a political bombshell on the enemy. Lord has been a diplomat (and a soldier). She knows her stuff. Also, coming from Barbados, she has a very different view of geopolitics than someone who has grown up in the USA or UK, which is very refreshing.
Then there is the gender stuff. Readers of The Best of All Possible Worlds may remember Lian, a character who is genderless. Well, Lian turns up again in The Galaxy Game, and the whole gender thing is mentioned just once, in passing. Most readers, I suspect, will never notice that Lian’s gender is not specified. I spotted just one use of a gendered word, and that was from Ntenman which, as it later turned out, was only to be expected. There is a trans character in the book too, and I love the way that Lord has handled Ntenman’s journey to acceptance of her.
Talking of Ntenman, one of the more unusual aspects of the book is Lord’s decision to tell his story in first person, and the rest of the book in third person. Ntenman isn’t the primary viewpoint character, though he is fairly significant to the story. I don’t think it distracts majorly from the book, but I’m not sure what it adds, or at least was intended to add. Were I to be interviewing Lord about the book, this is the first question I’d put to her.
I guess I should talk about societies too. Much of the action takes place on Punartam, which is an Ntshune planet and very different culturally to Rafi’s more Terran home on Cygnus Beta. On Punartam who you are and who you know are massively important. I have this image of people from saner parts of the globe finding themselves in England and struggling to make sense of all of the class politics.
In summary, Karen Lord novels are fascinating things. They are not fast-paced space adventures, but they are very thoughtful and will reward re-reading. Also, while there is a series being built here, the books are fairly complete in themselves. You do need to have read The Best of All Possible Worlds before reading The Galaxy Game, but you won’t be left hanging at the end of either book. Of course we do want to know what happened to Commander Nasiha, and that probably means finding out what awful things are happening on New Sadira, but that’s a tale for another book, please, Karen.
For more information about Karen Lord, see the SF Encyclopedia.
Buy this book from:
The Book Depository