fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews L.J. Smith The Forbidden GameThe Forbidden Game by L.J. Smith

Well, I do have to thank the Twilight phenomena for one thing at least, and that’s that the collected trilogies of Lisa Jane Smith have been pulled out of the Simon and Schuster publishing vault, given brand spanking new covers, and re-released for both a new reading audience, and old-time fans who are ready to fill in the gaps on their bookshelves.

Out of all Smith’s body of work, it was The Forbidden Game that I was least familiar with. First published as a trilogy, the middle book was on the shelf of my school library, but the preceding and concluding installments were impossible to get hold of. For the last six years or so, all I had experienced was a story with no beginning and no end. As such, it was with immense satisfaction that I settled down with all three books handily bound together in one omnibus volume, previously published separately as The Hunter, The Chase, and The Kill.

Jenny Thornton is preparing a party for her boyfriend Tom, and is exploring the neighborhood in search of a game that will entertain her core group of friends. Escaping from a couple of intimidating young men leads her into an unusual shop that seems to have exactly what she’s looking for: a unique and unforgettable game — or so the shop owner promises her. Unnerved by his white hair and intense gaze, Jenny buys the game and hurries home where her friends await: sophisticated Audrey, spunky Dee, introverted Zach, cheerful Mike, winsome Summer, and of course, her football star and ruggedly handsome boyfriend. Though Jenny is having second thoughts, her friends immediately pounce on the mysterious game.

They’re going to get more than they bargained for. Though I don’t want to give away the specifics of a marvelously twisty plot, the teenagers find themselves sucked into a real-life game in which they are forced to confront their darkest fears, all of which has been planned by the Shadow Man, a mysterious and malignant youth who gets a kick out of tormenting them, but has a particular interest in Jenny…

Divided into three books, each one is based on a particular type of game that the protagonists are forced into: a race, hide-and-seek, and finally a treasure hunt, with the stakes escalating each time. Amazingly, this formula avoids feeling repetitive, mainly because the characters grow and change over the course of their adventures, the format of each game is radically different, and the prize at the end of the game changes each time.

In terms of genre, The Forbidden Game sits squarely between Smith’s usual paranormal-romance fare, and her earlier (and less known) work: two fantasy adventure stories for children; in this case it’s also quite reminiscent of the cult-classic Labyrinth. Since I still harbor suspicions that Stephanie Meyer was very heavily influenced by the writing of L.J. Smith, it’s safe to say to any young YA reader who slavishly worships at the shrine of Edward Cullen will also find something to enjoy here. Smith uses the same storytelling elements to great effect: love triangles, a basis in well-known myths and legends, the power of friendship, and the melding of teenage issues with the supernatural realm. She also excels in her creation of what is generally known among literary types as “the cute but troubled bad boy.” Put a supernatural spin on an insanely good-looking suitor who is completely undone by our young heroine and you’ll have your target audience swooning in the aisles.

I must say however, that I found myself slightly puzzled over Julian’s obsession over Jenny; not because she wasn’t a strong and likeable female character, but because she was flanked by two best friends that were far more interesting: Dee, the brave and reckless Amazonian, and Audrey, the worldly yet sensitive Intellectual. If I was an immortal with a fascination for humanity, I’d have my eye on those two…

Still, Jenny deserves the title “heroine,” particularly by the end of the three parts. Amusingly though, Julian admits to Jenny at one stage that he’s been watching her throughout her lifetime, even at night when she’s sleeping. Being a sensible young woman, Jenny is hardly impressed by this; rather she feels disturbed and violated. Are you listening, Bella Swan? Despite my uneasiness about the entire mindset (not just here, but in YA books in general) that postulates that a dangerous, abusive, malevolent male can be “saved” or “redeemed” by the love of an innocent young woman, I appreciate that Jenny’s entire story arc is ultimately summed up in the mantra: “I am my only master.” I can get behind that message for young girls.

The Forbidden Game ends up being Smith’s best trilogy since The Secret Circle, a frantic and exciting story, littered throughout with clever riddles and twists, in which the teens must rely on their wits, courage and each other in order to survive the ordeal ahead of them. Smith can make situations truly frightening without veering off into gore or vulgarity, and has a wonderful grasp of these characters and what they’re capable of. The bittersweet ending is handled well, and like many others have admitted, I too was up reading till the early hours of the morning.

As far as lightweight YA reading goes, L.J. Smith’s nineties material is still relevant, and a welcome re-addition to the bookstores.

The Forbidden Game — (1994) Young adult. From the Author’s website: Jenny wants to get her boyfriend, Tom, a special game for his birthday party. However, she can’t help but be fascinated by the boy with the white-blond hair who sells her a strange game as a present. It turns out that the boy, Julian, is the youngest of those from the Shadow Lands, a race of evil beings who live invisibly just beside our own world. Once Jenny opens the game, she is in his land. Julian is determined to seduce her, but he has to work by a set of inflexible rules, only touching Jenny where she has reached for him.  In the fantasy house that Julian has created, where everyone at the party must face their greatest fear, Julian himself is Jenny’s worst nightmare… and maybe her dream lover, as well.

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  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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