Game of the Gods: An ambitious but unsatisfying dystopian adventure

Game of the Gods by Jay SchiffmanGame of the Gods by Jay SchiffmanGame of the Gods by Jay Schiffman

Hundreds of years in our world’s future, dystopia prevails, at least in the nation called the Federacy. Judge Max Cone, with a stellar career as a military commander behind him, has spent the last fourteen years as a high judge. One of his duties is to interview young people who want to become formal citizens of the Federacy, guaranteeing them freedom. Most are rejected, sent to border settlements where life is perilous. Now Max is biding his time, taking care of his beloved wife and three young children and quietly planning his personal revenge on the governmental officials who ordered the procedure that essentially lobotomized his wife, a gifted scientist whose research findings threatened the Federacy.

Tensions with other nations and powerful rebel groups are high. While at the trial of a thirteen year old girl named Pique, a citizenship candidate who decided to prove her nearly inhuman talent as a fighter by tying Max up, Max gets kidnapped by a representative of the Federacy’s supposed ally, the Nation of Yerusalom. He finds himself pulled in different directions by various factions who want to use him and his skills and famous name for their own political and military purposes. Max sometimes cooperates, but often pushes back. Despite his jaded view of politics, he has a deep determination to do what he thinks is best. When a shocking tragedy occurs, Max becomes more deeply involved with these powerful forces who want to change the world to fit their vision … in ways that might be disastrous.

Game of the Gods (2018), a debut novel by Jay Schiffman, started out fairly interesting for me, with a combination of action/adventure and conspiracies. Max is a reluctant hero who finds himself deeply enmeshed in a complex web of political and religious scheming, and he’s surrounded by some intriguing secondary characters. The first person/present tense narration was a drawback, though; it never ceased to feel clunky.

Around the one-third mark I really started to disengage. It began with a team-building exercise for a planned rescue mission that is, rather suspiciously, comprised entirely of young woman ― except for Max. He resists the multiple sexual come-ons heroically, but hey, what’s a guy to do when the women pin him down and force hallucinogenic drugs into his mouth? My eyes were rolling SO hard. Max never seems too exercised about it (partly because the girls give him another drug to cloud his memories of what happened) but it’s a highly dubious combination of ritualized sexual fantasy and guy rape.

Game of the Gods never recovered from that point. The plot gets more fragmented and unwieldy, and Schiffman’s writing style is rather choppy and frequently heavy-handed. At one point there’s a truly startling leap in time: a chapter ends with a tension-filled scene ― cherished characters dying! traitors being executed! ― and at the very start of the next chapter Max suddenly awakes from a medically-induced coma to find that six months have passed. It felt like Schiffman wanted to shift the action forward in time and thought this was a convenient way to achieve that goal, but it came across as inept.

Game of the Gods ends without any real resolution. Though it’s not being marketed as the first book in a series, I can only surmise that a sequel is intended; otherwise the ending is incredibly dissatisfying. If there is a sequel, though, I won’t be reading it.

Published July 10, 2018. Jay Schiffman’s Game of the Gods is a debut sci-fi/fantasy thriller of political intrigue and Speilberg-worthy action sequences in the vein of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising. Max Cone wants to be an ordinary citizen of the Federacy and leave war and politics behind. He wants the leaders of the world to leave him alone. But he’s too good a military commander, and too powerful a judge, to be left alone. War breaks out, and Max becomes the ultimate prize for the nation that can convince him to fight again. When one leader gives the Judge a powerful device that predicts the future, the Judge doesn’t want to believe its chilling prophecy: The world will soon end, and he’s to blame. But bad things start to happen. His wife and children are taken. His friends are falsely imprisoned. His closest allies are killed. Worst of all, the world descends into a cataclysmic global war. In order to find his family, free his friends, and save the world, the Judge must become a lethal killer willing to destroy anyone who stands in his way. He leads a ragtag band of warriors—a 13-year old girl with special powers, a mathematical genius, a religious zealot blinded by faith, and a former revolutionary turned drug addict. Together, they are the only hope of saving the world.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  1. I was thinking “Really?” when I got to “Yerusalom,” but then the “fun” drug-fueled guy-rape… oh dear. And oh, no.

    • I get the use of Yerusalom (and also BTW “Kolexico” for the Mexico area … I’m not sure what the Kol prefix is supposed to be derived from) since it’s a future version of our world. One of Schiffman’s primary themes is the abuse of power in the name of religion. But that sex scene was just bad, on so many levels that I don’t even get into here. It wasn’t particularly explicit, just so distasteful.

      • “Kolexico” might be the author showing the linguistic evolution of “Calexico.” Calexico is a real California town on the border with Mexico. (Not to be confused with CalExpo, which is a sports and performance arena near Sacramento.)

        • Good thought! I was thinking maybe the “Kol” came from Columbia (it’s not clear how large the borders of Kolexico are in the book). But your idea would make more sense geographically.

          • Bella /

            This confused me also! If you visit the author’s website, there is a map which shows Kolexico actually being the Greenland area. This is even stranger and I have no idea how he derived the name.

  2. Wow, Bella, that really surprises me! I thought it was a no-brainer that Kolexico was somewhere in Latin America. I’m going to have to go look at that map.

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