Review: The Forbidden Game (L.J. Smith)

I’m a little depressed since my computer decided to crap itself and die (luckily, I managed to save most of my writing, except the document I just started on my queer Arthurian stories, but I didn’t start writing them yet, so that’s okay). So I decided to take the time to re-read a book I’ve wanted to review ever since I started this blog.

The cover of the swanky collector’s edition omnibus, not lovingly destroyed, like my own copy.

The Forbidden Game trilogy (The Hunter, The Chase, and The Kill) begins with average girl Jenny Thornton looking for last-minute entertainment for her boyfriend Tom’s birthday party. Stumbling upon a mysterious game store with an equally mysterious proprietor–a boy with the most startlingly blue eyes–Jenny feels drawn to a simple white box, supposedly containing a game unlike any other game in the world.

Little does she know that the Game is actually a contest for a human soul, and soon, she and her friends find themselves trapped in the world of the game, where their deepest secrets and darkest fears are very real–and very deadly.

This book was one of my favourites when I was younger, and reading it again for the first time in almost a decade was an interesting experience. Overall, even though there were some elements of the book that were definitely a little dated, I still enjoyed it.

For starters, there isn’t a lot of depth to the characters (at least at first): Jenny is your run-of-the-mill everywoman, Tom, her boyfriend, is your run-of-the-mill everyman (and almost singularly focused on protecting Jenny from everything), Dee is the sassy black friend (who has a wise grandmother), Audrey is the rich girl, Michael is the fat kid, Zach, Jenny’s cousin, is the quiet type who prefers staying in his darkroom to interacting with people, and Summer, Summer is the sweet and innocent girl who thinks that everything is “cute”. Fortunately, they do develop beyond those initial characterizations: Jenny learns to be less dependent on Tom, and Audrey doesn’t turn out to be the “rich bitch” you might be expecting her to be, but a couple characters–most notably Summer and Zach–don’t really seem to grow as much as the others. At times, I got the impression that L.J. Smith didn’t really know what to do with Zach.

Then there’s Julian, our main antagonist. Julian is what some might term the “stalker-boyfriend” type. You know, the type of character that would probably be the love interest in Twilight a certain kind of book? He wants Jenny, and he’s prepared to do anything–even risking her life and the lives of her friends–to get what he wants. The refreshing thing about this series (which was originally published in the early 90s) is that, aside from a few brief scenes in the third book, Julian is almost never portrayed as anything but the antagonist he is. Just, seriously, look at this quote:

“Who are you?” She whispered again.

“Who do you want me to be? I love you, Jenny–I came from the World of Shadows to get you. I’ll be anything you like, give you anything you want. Do you like jewels? Emeralds to match your eyes? Diamonds?” He reached outspread fingers towards her throat, not quite touching.

“What about clothes? A different outfit for every hour of the day, in colors you’ve never imagined. Pets? Have a marmoset, or a white tiger. Far-off places? You can lie in the sun at Cabo San Lucas or Cote d’Azur. Anything, Jenny. Just imagine.”

What’s Jenny’s response to this? Swooning and sighing? No, it’s a decisive: “You’re crazy!” (you know, they’ve just met, and all). Eat it, Twilight!

Norse mythology plays an important role in the story. This was the book that sparked my interest in runes. While they don’t see a lot of action until the third book, they are definitely present in the first two books. There are also more subtle references to the myths, such as the Creeper and the Lurker (a snake and a wolf respectively) who are Julian’s constant companions, an emphasis on riddles, and the Shadow Men themselves.  Smith’s writing style is very readable, not terrible, not a shining example of evocative prose, but good.

If I had to criticize this book, I definitely have a few gripes regarding Dee, who is a tad exoticized and constantly bearing a grin that is described as “barbaric” (I suspect Smith meant to highlight Dee’s fearlessness, not necessarily stereotype her, but it comes across as more stereotypical than it has to be). I personally found Tom annoying with his constant desire to protect Jenny from anything and everything, but she does eventually become less dependent on him. I also found the second book to be much slower paced than the others (it’s the ‘second book curse’ that plagues most trilogies, IMO) and I didn’t remember as much about that book as the first or third book.

Overall though, I’d say it’s a solid YA read, and some parts of it managed to seriously creep me out a decade later. I’d recommend it if you’re interested in pop Norse mythology.

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