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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Richelle Mead: AGE OF X SERIES

Author:  Richelle Mead
Series:  AGE OF X    
Plot Type:  Romantic, Futuristic, Dystopian Fantasy
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality4; Humor2-3 
Publisher and Titles:  Dutton (Penguin Group)
          Gameboard of the Gods (6/2013)
          The Immortal Crown (5/2014)    

     This post was revised and updated on 6/23/14 to include a review of The Immortal Crown, the second novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of the first novel.       

             NOVEL 2:  The Immortal Crown             
    Gameboard of the Gods introduced the hero and heroine of this series: Justin March, the eloquent and persuasive religious investigator, and Mae Koskinen, the brave and lovely super soldier assigned to protect him. Their assignment has been to investigate reports of the supernatural and the return of the gods, both in the Republic of United North America (RUNA) and elsewhere in the world. In my review of Gameboard of the Gods, I wondered if Mead would put her lead lovers through the same degree of angst and heartbreak as Georgina and Seth in her GEORGINA KINCAID series. Well, the answer to that question is…yes, indeed. Mead put a major blockade in the way of Mae and Justin's relationship at the beginning of book 1, and she adds to their romantic turmoil in book 2. 
WARNING to those who have not read Gameboard of the Gods:    There are spoilers in this review.
    In the very first scene of The Immortal Crown, Mae and Justin are on an investigative mission in Nassau, where they find evidence that a war has begun among the gods. By this time, both have become convinced that the gods actually exist (based on their adventures in book 1), but they are now horrified to learn that the gods (and goddesses) are sending their human representatives (aka the elect) to kill the representatives of their rivals. The elect are "those humans marked as special who had the potential to be strong servants for the gods who were scrambling to regain power and footing in the world." (page 17) Since Mae and Justin are both elects and have been fighting off claims by two different gods, they wonder what impact this War of the Elect will have on their lives. They will soon find out.

     The primary plot finds Justin and Mae drawn into a diplomatic mission led by Senator Lucian Darling, a old friend of Justin's and a wannabe suitor for Mae. Lucian wants to become Consul, and he believes that if he can successfully pull off a successful trip to hostile Arcadia (formerly the Southeast United States), he will become a national hero and win the election easily. The trip will be somewhat dangerous because Arcadia is a strictly controlled theocracy that bears a number of similarities to some religion-run countries that exist in the real world today. The people of Arcadia worship only one god (Nehitimar), who apparently takes a dim view of the female gender. Arcadian women are viewed as the property of men and must keep themselves covered up at all times so that they will not tempt men with their wicked bodies. Men are allowed to have as many wives and concubines as they can afford, and their women have absolutely no civil rights. Although modern technology is available in Arcadia, most households do not have running water or electricity because the priests of 
Nehitimar believe that women need to be kept busy with menial activities (like carrying buckets of water from far-off wells, washing clothing by hand, and cooking all food from scratch on wood-burning stoves). Otherwise, the priests warn that the women might give in to their inherent sluttishness and tempt innocent men into committing evil acts. All over Arcadia, young girls are kidnapped, bought, and sold when they reach puberty. The portrayal of the treatment of the Arcadian women is stomach-churningly horrifying.

     Justin and Mae have their own personal reasons for going to Arcadia: Justin goes because Mae wants to go and because his Ravens tell him that the Arcadian religious leader poses a threat both to the RUNA and to Odin, the god who is trying to make Justin his priest. Mae wants to go because the goddess who is trying to claim her shows her a vision that her long-lost niece is in Arcadia and implies that Mae can rescue her. As the plot plays out, the motivations of the two protagonists form the two main story lines. Most of the time, Mae and Justin are together, but at the end, their adventures take them on separate—and very dangerous—paths.

     Meanwhile, back in Vancouver in the RUNA, Justin's ward, Tessa Cruz, is once again getting herself (and Justin and Lucian) into trouble as she begins an internship with an investigative reporter who is as sleazy as they come. Daphne Lang is digging for dirt on Lucian, and it's clear from the beginning that she plans to use Tessa as an unknowing informant. So far, Tessa's role in each book has been analogous to a cinder in your eye or a stone in your shoe: an unwelcome addition that causes inflammation and injury. Tessa is presented as a highly intelligent teenager, a provincial innocent who is dropped into a sophisticated society. In both books she manages to go off on her own and stumble into trouble without ever contemplating the consequences of her actions. At this point, when I see Tessa enter a scene, I can predict that she is going to do something very, very unwise that will endanger Justin and/or his friends in some manner. Beyond this TSTL role, Tessa's character has little dimension and has shown no real development.

     The themes of this book involve the horrors of religious fanaticism, domestic violence, and the abuse of women—particularly in the scenes that take place in Arcadia, and also in a dreadful scene in which Mae learns just how dangerous the supernatural can be on a very personal level. The overriding theme is the effect of religion on the thoughts and actions of believers. In that sense, Mae and Justin are in a quandary. Do they believe that gods exist? Yes, they do, based on solid evidence they have seen with their own eyes. Will they allow themselves to be claimed by a god or goddess? The conflicted beginnings of an answer to that question come in this book, which ends in a major cliff-hanger that is related to that very issue. Both Mae and Justin are continually forced to weigh the pros and cons of involvement with the gods. Is the divine power worth the price that must always be paid? Can they trust the gods to keep their promises? Are some gods and goddesses more trustworthy than others? More powerful?

     Both the action plot and the romance plot are fast-paced, suspenseful, and dramatic. Particularly fascinating is the reaction of the fiercely independent RUNA women warriors to the treatment of the Arcadian women, especially when they found themselves being forced into submissive roles that include food preparation and floor scrubbing. I found myself much more absorbed in this book than I was in the first—mostly because in the first book I was slowed down by the process of learning the mythology. Luckily for readers, this book has the glossary that the first one was missing, so you can quickly flip to the back and refresh your memory when Mead uses unfamiliar world-building terminology. Although I realize that Mae and Justin have a long, difficult romantic road ahead, I plan to be with them every frustrating step of the way. Also, I can't wait to see what the gods will do next, particularly the one who shows up at the end of this book
and NO, you shouldn't peek! Click HERE to read the first two chapters of The Immortal Crown. Just scroll down past the book blurb to find the excerpt.

     I'm going to break one of my own rules here and provide a description of the world-building in the author's own words (from her web site). I'm doing this because the mythology is extremely complicated (I'm not sure that I completely comprehend it, even after reading the first book), and its details contribute heavily to the series story arc. Also, in order to fully understand what's going on, I highly recommended that you read (and perhaps print out) the author's AGE OF X glossary so that you can refer to it as you read. Click HERE to go to that glossary. Mead has written a number of blog posts about the world-building in this series. Click HERE to go to a page on her web site that includes all of those posts. Just keep scrolling down because this is a long, information-filled page. Here is the author's description of the mythology:

     "Gameboard of the Gods takes place 100 years in the future. Around our current day, religious extremists unleashed a virus called Mephistopheles (they saw it as a demon punishing the world) that took out half the world's population. Countries and infrastructure crumbled as a result, causing many places to descend into chaos and even regress. Different regions coped in different ways. Some weren't very effective at all and went totally Mad Max. This part of history is referred to as the Decline.

     "The majority of the former US and Canada banded together to create a new country called the Republic of [United] North America...usually referred to as the RUNA....Its capital is Vancouver....Noticing that those of mixed genetic backgrounds had greater resistance to the virus, the RUNA instituted a harsh policy where large parts of its population were forcibly swapped with those of another emerging country formed from parts of China and Russia [the EAEastern Alliance]. As the two countries began [cross] breeding heterogeneous populations with greater survival rates, they were able to better weather the virus until a vaccine was created.

     "Fast-forward a century later, to the book's setting. The RUNA's policies have made it the leading country in the world. It's regained the technology it lost in the Decline and has started to advance past where we are today. It's a bright, shiny country with compulsory education, efficient energy, birth control laws, a mighty military, smart phone-esque devices that mange every part of your life, public transportation everywhere, and all sorts of other good stuff. Citizens have small chips in their hands that facilitate what parts of the country they can move through. The RUNA has a very high opinion of itself and looks down on all other parts of the worldmany of which are still totally a messwhich it calls "the provinces."

     "Genetic mixing is no longer mandatory, but those who still reproduce with 'genetically optimal' partners get stipends from the government. In addition to this, the RUNA has one other big policy that it used in its recovery. In its eyes, religion was responsible for the Decline. The RUNA sees religion as a source of unrest, creating separatist attitudes and irrational behaviors. Consequently, it has a very strong stance against religion and belief in the supernatural. Most religions were stamped out, though some remainedincluding many new ones that were revivals of older gods [and goddesses] from around the world. Those groups that are allowed to exist must be licensed and deemed not a threat. Any group that seems unstable or is growing too large is disbanded....This particular policy forms a large part of the book's plot."

     That "smart phone-esque" device that Mead mentions is called an "ego," and it is aptly named because each RUNA citizen relies on it for just about everything.  Here's how the series hero describes the ego's importance: "It governed a [person's] life. It made calls, provided unlimited access to the [media] stream, managed money, verified identity....Being without one for four years had been a huge adjustment....He'd grown up with people and information instantly accessible, and that lack had only increased his feeling of isolation in exile." The word "ego" derives from the Latin word for "I" and in its most literal definition means the self of an individual person. That's exactly what an ego is to the citizens of the RUNA. (Gameboard, p. 43)

     Although Mead includes a brief definition of the Mephistopheles virus in her glossary, a longer, more complete explanation appears on pages 85-86 of the hardback version of Gameboard of the Gods. It's too long to reproduce here, but I recommend that you read that paragraph first to provide some context for the story.  

     Besides Mead's well-known YA VAMPIRE ACADEMY series, she has written two adult urban fantasy series. Click HERE to read my review of the terrific GEORGIA KINCAID series. (Beware! it contains spoilers.) Click HERE to read my review of her DARK SWAN series. As I said in my DARK SWAN review, Mead is one of the best urban fantasy writers on the market today. She captures the angst of her leading characters perfectly without going overboard, and she makes sure that they all have flaws—no one is either all good or all bad—which makes for compelling reading.

             NOVEL 1:  Gameboard of the Gods             
     As in any series-launching novel, much of this book is dedicated to introducing Mead's complex world-building and initial characterization. The bits and pieces of the world-building are doled out very slowly, and in order to understand what's going on, the reader will either have to check Mead's web site (for background and definitions of terms) or just keep going until the various details emerge in the text of the story. This problematic method of world-building is a definite disappointment because it weakens the book. A novel needs to stand on its own, whether or not it is the initial book in a series, and I'm not sure that this one does. As a reviewer, I felt that I needed to read the book without the benefit of Mead's web-site support, and I have to admit that I was frustrated with her use of concepts and terms (including acronyms) that appeared without much context and without the benefit of any explanation. On the other hand, once I got into the story and once some of the details began to be revealed, I found myself drawn into the story and really caring about the characters.

     In the first two chapters, we meet Mae (the heroine) and Dr. Justin March (the hero), and in chapter 3 we watch them meet in a lustful night of passion, followed by a book-long, semi-hostile/semi-lustful stand-off. 

      Justin is a tall, dark, and handsome 35-year-old plebeian who is in exile in Panama, one of the provinces. In RUNA, Justin was a top-notch servitor (from the Latin, servitor veritatis: servant of the truth) who worked for the SCI (Division of Sect and Cult Investigation), but his RUNA citizenship was stripped for a reason that is unknown to the reader for much of the book. Justin's job was to investigate religious groups and decide whether to shut them down or to license them. In the language of the SCI, religions are called "fictitious entities" and only the harmless, powerless ones are allowed to survive. Justin is incredibly intelligent and is able to "read" people—easily figuring out what they're thinking and then using his charm to influence them. He is compulsively observant, and this drives him a bit crazy because his brain never stops monitoring his surroundings. As a result, Justin indulges in behavior guaranteed to sedate his mind: drinking, drugging, and womanizing. He's definitely a drug addict and an alcoholic, but as long as he can use one substance to overcome the effects of another, Justin believes (wrongly) that he has his life under control. One final, very important detail about Justin: He has the voices of a pair of invisible, intangible ravens in his head—wise-cracking, powerful, god-related ravens.

     Mae Koskinen (aka Maj Erja) is a patrician and a 
prætorian, one of the military's most elite soldiers. (In the Roman Empire, the prætorians made up the royal guard.) All prætorians have tiny implants that amp up their strength, stamina, healing, and...lust. Mae is unlike most prætorians in that she is a blond from a wealthy, aristocratic family, whereas most soldiers are dark-haired plebeians. Mae is a true soldier. She "completely supported the RUNA's stance against religion. People who got caught up in the groupthink of these superstitions were easy to lead into dangerous behaviors....The only thing Mae put her faith in was her country." (p. 124) So...Mae is a contradiction: born to be a cultured trophy wife but trained to be a cold-hearted killer who keeps her emotions hidden at all times. This drives Justin crazy because his life is spent reading people's emotions, and that just doesn't work with Mae.

     Mae's family is part of the Nordic caste.  In the RUNA, the castes are ethnic groups who were exempted from forced breeding because of their money and influence. They value their pure genetic heritage and generally keep their women busy reproducing more members of their caste, so it is rare for a patrician to become a member of the military. The plebeians, on the other hand, come from a mixed ethnic heritage. For the most part, each class tends to view the other with disdain.  

     The third most important character is Teresa (Tessa) Cruz, a teenage daughter of a Panamanian man who helped Justin in his early days of exile. When Justin gets his job back at SCI, he brings Tessa with him so that she can get a proper education that will help her find a better place in the world. Justin sees in Tessa some of the same characteristics that he sees in himself, and he's determined to keep her from wasting her life in the provinces. Tessa's primary purpose in this book is to provide an outsider's view of the RUNA culture. Unlike Justin and Mae, she is not blindly devoted to the RUNA, so she asks some uncomfortable questions.

     Now to the plot: Justin is brought back from exile because his particular expertise is needed in finding the ritualistic serial murderer who has killed several RUNA citizens—all with a silver dagger through the heart and without leaving a single clue, except for a mysterious security video that shows a black shadow that appears and disappears from the locked room in which the victim is stabbed. After a violent incident at the funeral of Mae's ex-boyfriend, Mae is temporarily stripped of her prætorian uniform and assigned as Justin's bodyguard. The first time they meet, Mae has to rescue Justin from some male relatives of one of his conquests. Neither realizes the other's true identity, and they immediately fall into bed together. The next day, they are in for a shock when they are introduced under formal circumstances. Justin's ravens have reminded him that he will have to complete a bargain with their god (of unknown identity) if he beds Mae again, so he spends the rest of the book trying not to do that, and she spends the rest of the book wondering why he's acting so strangely. Their relationship is complicated and is not resolved in this book.

     What is resolved is the murder mystery part of the plot as the two head out into the hinterlands to investigate the murders and get deeper and deeper into magical high jinks stirred up by various gods and goddesses. At one point, a key character says, "We're pieces on a gameboard...and some of us are more powerful than others." (p. 432) But who are these powerful beings? Are the gods and goddesses real, or are they just "fictional entities" as the state decrees. Of course, Mae doesn't believe in gods and goddesses at all (at least, not at first), and Justin is trying not to believe in them. Eventually, we have the requisite showdown scene, and after that the couple's situation gets even more complicated—but that's a story for the next book.   

     Overall, this is a well-plotted book with interesting, well-developed characters. As I said previously, the main problem is the world-building, which relies on outside references for clarity and detail. At the very least, the glossary should have been published as part of the book, and a prologue would have been helpful as well. Regardless of this weakness, however, I'm looking forward to the next entry in the series because I really want to follow the developing relationship between Justin and Mae. If Mead treats this couple the same way she treated poor Georgina and Seth in her GEORGINA KINCAID series, they (and we) have lots of twisted and tortured adventures ahead. 

     Click HERE to read chapter 1 and meet Mae. Click HERE to read chapter 2 and meet Justin. Click HERE to read chapter 3 and see their explosive and sensual first meeting. Click HERE to read an on-line interview with Richelle Mead about the series. And just for the fun of it, click HERE to go to a post on Nite Lite Book Reviews featuring a manicure that matches this book's swirly blue and white cover art.

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