Games Wizards Play is the tenth book in Diane Duane’s YOUNG WIZARDS series, and while a reader could struggle through it as a standalone, I’d say it’s definitely best read in the series, as there are many references to past events, a host of characters big and small and lots of terminology that will resonate more fully to fans of the series. As far as where it stands in that series (which I highly recommend, BTW), I’d say it’s one of the weaker books, though it does advance our main characters’ lives — both their wizardly ones and their personal ones — and set us up for future adventures.
The focus of the 600-plus page book is “The Invitational,” a sort of science fair for young wizards who get mentored as they create, then present, original spell work. Our main series characters — Nita, Kit, and Dairine — are all asked by the Powers That Be to be mentors. Kat and Nita as a team, for an obnoxiously arrogant and sexist boy (Penn Shao-Feng), and Dairine to an Indian girl (Mehrnaz Farrahi) with family issues. In addition to their problematic charges, Kit and Nita together are struggling with the awkwardness of their new boyfriend-girlfriend relationship; Nita alone is having a hard time with some disturbing visions; and Dairine continues to have a hard time with the loss of someone she cared about (in the last book) and with her new sun-monitoring apprenticeship.
Duane has always had a sensitive hand when conveying the personal lives and interactions of her young characters and that remains a strength in Games Wizards Play. Sure, sometimes Nita’s internal monologues might be a little too direct or frequent, but generally Duane does an excellent job with the confusion, awkwardness, self-doubt, and out-and-out fear that occurs when a relationship moves from friends to more than friends, especially at this age. There’s also a nod to Nita finding her role in the wizardly world, and I actually wouldn’t have minded if some of the relationship time had been replaced with more on this aspect, though it’s clear this is mostly a set-up for what’s coming next.
The side characters unfortunately don’t fare quite as well. Both are a bit too stock and their plots are pretty perfunctorily dealt with, both throughout the book and in their resolutions, which feel rushed and anti-climactic. And while “relationships” are a clear theme, sometimes that theme is played too bluntly, and one also feels a bit of a “checklist” nature to things, with an again perfunctory shout-out to a gay character and an asexual character. The problem isn’t the presence of these characters, but their slightness and their wholly peripheral relation to the plot, so that rather than feeling like they (and thus their sexuality) are an organic part of the novel, they feel tacked on so as to cover all the bases. That said, easily my favorite writing in the book occurs in a passage dealing with the relationship between the sentient planets Jupiter and Saturn (talk about covering all bases!)
The plot of Games Wizards Play is leisurely at best, with lots of time spent on the intricacies of various spells with Duane too-frequently offering up, in my mind, more detail than is necessary. Things move pretty slowly from invitation to meeting the mentors to dealing with them to the first and then final parts of the competition. When the first “culling” removes a lot more contestants than usual, a mystery to all that is never explained, it’s hard as a reader not to think this was just Duane realizing things were not moving apace and needing to speed things up. This leisurely pace continues nearly to the very ending, where the book goes from 0 to 60 in about 2.3 pages (may be a slight exaggeration). This is where things feel rushed and anticlimactic.
Given these issues, a book coming in at about 400-450 pages, with less time spent on the jargon and spells and more on the side characters, would have made for a better read in my opinion. But as mentioned, I’m a huge fan of the YOUNG WIZARDS series, and our main characters do move forward in several aspects of their lives, so there’s still pleasure to be found here for fans. And as always, Duane’s writing is smooth and effortless, carrying the reader along quickly through the book. So yes, Games Wizards Play is a weaker entry in the series as a whole, but still one worth reading for series fans and one which sets up the future quite nicely.