Game of Shadows by Erika Lewis
High school is hard enough on its own — there’s homework, bullies, unrequited crushes, and overprotective parents, just to name a few hurdles on the way to freedom and adulthood. But that’s nothing compared to the challenges presented in Erika Lewis’ Game of Shadows (2017); our intrepid hero must also learn sword fighting, diplomacy, and an entirely new language and culture if he is to save his mother from an evil sorcerer’s machinations. By comparison, Advanced Geometry seems a lot more appealing!
Ethan Makkai, newly fourteen, wants only one thing for his birthday: to walk to school without his overbearing mother, Caitríona, at his side. Sure, Los Angeles isn’t the safest city in the world, but what’s the worst that could happen? Unfortunately, after Ethan sneaks out of their apartment and gets into a fight with a bully, he returns home to discover their belongings torn to shreds and his mother abducted. A strange man calling himself Captain Bartlett informs Ethan that Caitríona has been taken back to her homeland, a mysterious magic-shrouded island called Tara, and she’d fled to Los Angeles to protect her unborn son from the very enemies who captured her. Ethan has inherited a special ability to see and speak with ghosts, and this gift/curse means that he has a very important part to play in the political upheaval currently plaguing Tara.
Once in Tara, and specifically in the kingdom of Landover, Ethan meets family members he never knew existed, including an older cousin who is expected to ascend the Landover throne. Luckily, his cousin Christian is happy to throw his support behind Ethan and assist with the search for Caitríona, and with the addition of an extremely beautiful healer named Lily, the trio sets off on horseback to travel through the other kingdoms of Tara. Along the way, they learn more about the circumstances which caused Caitríona to flee Tara, the identity of Ethan’s father, and what caused the people of Tara to separate themselves from the known world a few centuries prior. And, of course, they get into all kinds of scrapes with the local residents, and are repeatedly threatened by the evil sorcerer’s minions.
Tara itself is well-described, with interesting landmarks or unique features marking each kingdom. It’s also populated with a wide breadth of people and creatures, from Brownies to shape-shifting Cat Sidhe to Faoladhs, fearsome wolf-men, and much more, all influenced by aspects or themes in Celtic mythology. Each culture or kingdom is marked by certain symbols and brands, and each has access to different kinds of magical abilities or disciplines which add depth and complexity to Game of Shadows. Though Ethan is surprisingly underwhelmed by the notion of traveling to a mysterious hidden island, he tends to react appropriately to encounters with strange beings, whether a situation calls for politeness or outrage.
As in many YA novels, the younger characters are filled with a desperate need to prove themselves as independent nearly-adults, while the adults have their own ideas about how the world should work. Most of the adult characters have the types of names you might expect from a Celtic-influenced and –descended society: Fearghus, Runyun, Morgan, Clothilde. Younger characters have a bit more of a grab-bag feel to them: Adam, Mysty, Seamus, Alastair, and as mentioned, Lily and Christian. Some characters have detailed knowledge of the outside world, while others seem completely ignorant of its existence. It’ll be interesting to see how Lewis approaches the divide between Tara and our own world, and how she allows for travel between worlds, in future installments.
The action in Game of Shadows is non-stop, to the point where it felt almost frenzied. Nearly every chapter contains a dramatic argument, a dangerous situation, or a physical altercation which threatens someone’s life and impedes the progress of Ethan’s quest. It’s difficult to get a sense of urgency or dire consequences for any particular battle when Ethan spends so much time either on his heels or trading blows with some fiend or another. Additionally, I was shocked when a character remarked that only a few days passed between Ethan’s arrival and his battle with the Big Bad; his emotional development and proficiency with weapons suggests otherwise.
Lewis does a good job of incorporating established elements of Celtic mythology into her world-building, and modifies them in such a way as to allow for cultural and linguistic shifts over the centuries that Tara was cut off from its neighbors. I thought this was a smart touch, and showed a level of consideration that I wasn’t expecting. Celtic symbols and motifs abound, particularly with regard to ravens and the implementation of Celtic-derived terms for magical spells.
Game of Shadows would be perfect for YA readers, especially those near Ethan’s age, who enjoy high fantasy and plenty of drama. The action scenes are detailed without going into too much gore and romance scenes are realistic for the age group without becoming explicit. The epilogue hints at even more adventure to come, so readers who enjoy Game of Shadows will have much to look forward to as the series continues.
It sounds like loads of fun for the right age-group, and I appreciate the wealth of Celtic detail.
I think you’re absolutely correct — the right age group would love this one. Lewis definitely spent a lot of time on researching Celtic mythology, and it paid off.
This sounds like something my 14 year old son might really love. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.
While I was reading it, I actually wondered if it might be something your son might like, since you’ve mentioned that he enjoys Rick Riordan’s work. :)