With a little apprehension, I began reading the dark fantasy novel The Godgame by Keith Deininger not knowing what to expect. I’ve read multiple novels and novellas by Keith and thoroughly enjoyed them. He is a true rising star in speculative fiction. When I picked up The Godgame (figuratively speaking, that is-it was on my Kindle), I noticed the F-word and thought, “oh no, Keith has gone over to the dark side.”
I didn’t need to worry. The Godgame is no tiresome fantasy with elves. Granted the story takes place in an alternative world. But the world was the same one Keith wrote about in two of his previous works that I’ve read: Shadow Animals and Marrow’s Pit. Both were chilling and gripping reads (I liked Shadow Animals a tad better), so I settled in for a great read knowing I was in safe territory.
The action takes in two neighboring communities: the city of Talos and a small village in Nova. Talos is depicted as a decadent, depraved, and narcissistic community. Nova, however, contains multiple small idyllic villages that somehow have escaped the cynicism of the larger city. The leader of Talos (who is called the Archon) is readying his city and army for an attack on the small village of Fallowvane.
There are a number of subplots which are too difficult to describe here, but within the course of the narrative the strands become tied together quite well. There are also a ton of characters, and Keith manages to juggle them all well – giving them independent lives and characteristics which help the reader not only tell them apart but also imbue them with three-dimension personalities. For instance, a chief aid/assistant for the Archon named Trevor is a standout. This conniving character has disturbing intentions, and his maneuverings for power and privilege keep the action rolling. The hero of the tale (at this stage at least) is a 12-year old boy named Ash who evidently has supernatural skills and abilities. He is unaware of these skills – as is the reader - but the scheming Talosians are certainly knowledgeable of them and want to capture him for exploitation. Ash is nicely rendered by Keith – his actions, thoughts, and dialog ring true for a 12 year old. Ash’s mother, Lena, is deathly ill for the first 70% of the novel and does not get much screen time. But when she comes to the forefront in the later sections, she establishes herself as a fascinating character in a manner that I didn’t see happening. Others like Embra, (Lena’s sister), the Anchon (a distasteful character – think of a human sized bag of pus), and Ash’s little sister (who has a bright future in episodes to come) are also dazzling when the reader experiences their point of view.
When the invasion of Nova by the army of Talos occurs, the portrayal is riveting and ghastly. The tension is relentless and the grip of the narrative is unyielding. This was one of my favorite sections of the book.
My one relatively minor criticism occurs sporadically in roughly the first 30% of the novel. Since Keith is creating his own world, he has to help his readers catch up on whatever is going on by providing brief summaries of history and back story. The result is an occasional slippage into “telling” the story as opposed to Keith’s typically skillful “showing” the story. While this slows things down a bit and can overwhelm the reader, it occurs infrequently so is not a major flaw.
Overall, The Godgame is another dynamic piece of dark fantasy from Keith Deininger. This book is part of a larger series and represents an exciting entry into the land of Talos. Highly recommended.