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BOOK REVIEW: The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord

REVIEW SUMMARY: Rafi is coming of age against the background of political and technological revolution. A sequel to The Best of All Possible Worlds, The Galaxy Game can be read as a stand alone and gives the reader a much larger view of the star-faring civilizations and offers multiple new characters for Lord to write additional fiction around.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Raised and educated on a planet that fears his inherited telepathic talents, Rafi struggles with his family’s expectations. On a trip to the planet of Punartam he gains a new understanding of how to hone his skills, while on his homeworld of Cygnus Beta political storms are brewing as the Sadiri attempt to re-evaluate and reinforce their cultural identity.

PROS: Lord gives a realistic look at splintering cultures, diaspora, and cultural identity issues; I appreciated the time she took to show how different cultures value telepathy and other talents; brilliant twist at the end regarding the popular sport of Wallrunning.
CONS: I wish the game of Wallrunning had been explained better; prologue is info-dumpy; a few scenes felt needlessly rushed.
BOTTOM LINE: Highly imaginative with smooth and poetic prose, The Galaxy Game will more than satisfy readers interested in social science fiction that offers a large cast of characters to root for, fascinating biological technologies, and a view on how space faring cultures would deal with a diaspora (and the subsequent return).

The Galaxy Game is a sequel to Karen Lord’s 2013 novel The Best of All Possible Worlds, which takes place shortly after the devastation of the Sadiri homeworld and is the story of the burgeoning relationship between Grace Delarua and a Sadiri refugee named Dllenahkh. Now, in The Galaxy Game, we follow Grace’s nephew Rafi, a young man of extraordinary telepathic abilities. While Rafi is trying to understand his place in the world, the Sadiri are facing a splintering of their culture as they attempt to recover from the involuntary diaspora. There are a lot of story threads happening here, and Lord does a great job of both tying up all the loose ends at the end, but also leaving enough unsaid that will cause any reader to want to know what happens next. She’s given herself plenty of room to continue writing in this universe, which I very much hope that she does.

The Galaxy Game can absolutely be read as a standalone story, and in fact opens with a nice little prologue that gives the reader information about the different human cultures found in our galaxy, and a perfect little creation story about how humanity got started on the different planets. While much of the plot centers around Rafi, there are portions that are told from Ntenman’s point of view, a point-of-view mirror image to the pattern of The Best of All Possible Worlds, where Grace Delarua told her story in first person POV, but there were sections from Dllenahkh’s point of view told in third person.

The story starts out on Cygnus Beta where, estranged from his mother, Rafi attends the Lyceum, which is a boarding school for children with telepathic abilities. Ostensibly to teach them how to safely use their abilities, the Lyceum “socializes the dangerously gifted”, and Rafi is no stranger to how dangerous his inherited abilities can be. He’s miserable at the school, and knows the government of Cygnus Beta will be forever keeping their eye on him and that he will never escape the label of “possibly dangerous”. In an attempt to get him somewhere safer, his family secretly arranges for him to leave Cygnus Beta and go to Punartam. Rafi’s best friend Ntenman goes as well, using the excuse that he is simply helping his father make business connections on Punartam. It’s good that he goes, since Rafi would never be able to survive Punartam alone.

I love how Lord makes all these human cultures completely different, and gives special attention to how the different cultures view telepathy. Some cultures celebrate it to the point where their body language and cultural attitudes are built around it while on the other end of the extreme are cultures that fear it and treat those with special abilities as a nearly uncontrollable danger to society. I happily could have read four hundred pages about this dynamic alone, which is another reason why I hope Lord continues to write in this universe.

Attitudes towards telepathy aside, Punartam couldn’t be more different from the rural and casual homesteading culture of Cygnus Beta. While enjoying the fact that he can play Wallrunning with a semi-pro team anytime he wants, Rafi is flummoxed by the unspoken societal rules and expectations of social credit, favors, and claims based on first contact. While all of this is happening, their friend Serendipity is exploring her options back home on Cygnus Beta, and learning more than she wanted to about the telepathic baby mindships who are making a home in the Cygnian oceans. Regarding the mindships – I very much would love to observe and pet one, although I am quite sure the mindship wouldn’t care for how I “taste”.

A large part of Rafi and Ntenman’s time on Punartam involves Wallrunning, a team sport which would easily rival our Earthly soccer in popularity. Even with the many descriptions of the adjustable-gravity walls and the jumps and spins of the players, I still had a tough time visualizing how the game would work. Regardless of that issue, I enjoyed the Wallrunning scenes, and loved how what makes a Wallrunner successful is directly connected to something that becomes very important as the novel comes to an end. Lord also pulls some fascinating plotting stunts involving sports betting, talent scouting networking, and how coaches should or shouldn’t treat their team. Ha! And I thought these scenes were just about sports!

And overlying all of this is the thunderstorm that is the Sadiran diaspora. Now that the surviving Sadiri have been resettled on both Cygnus Beta and New Sadira, they are trying to decide what their cultural future will be. What it means to be “Sadiri” has changed, and the old guard is having a tough time coming to terms with this. If you married into, or were adopted into a Sadiran family, are you considered Sadiri? How much assimilation is too much? How many steps away from the original is too many steps? How damaging will it be to their culture if they preserve only some of it, and if they go that route, who decides the priorities of what to preserve? There is even some disturbing talk about how to ensure Sadiri women bear children only by Sadiri men. I hope these sections speak as profoundly to you as they spoke to me.

The plot doesn’t follow a straight line, but follows more of a meandering spiral, giving the reader a full 360-degree view before narrowing in on the specifics. On the one hand, you don’t really know what the point of the story is until near the end, but on the other hand, you’ve been staring at exactly that for 150 pages, so did you really need an author to hold your hand and say in the first chapter “This. This is what our story is about”? The genius of The Galaxy Game lies in how Lord seamlessly connects what at first appear to be disparate plot lines. As it often is in real life, everything that happens makes ripples like a stone falling into a pond, effecting even far away citizens with connections and consequences.

As with The Best of All Possible Worlds, Lord’s prose in The Galaxy Game is poetic and smooth, with exposition that is practically pearlescent. However there were a few scenes felt oddly rushed, and the prologue was rather info-dumpy; but there are scenes that will bring you to tears with their heartbreaking bluntness, especially a scene at the end involving the current state of the Sadiri homeworld.

If you enjoy social science fiction that talks about large societal issues, complex characters, and gorgeously rendered cultures, The Galaxy Game is the book for you.

About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.

3 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord

  1. Paul Weimer // January 6, 2015 at 11:23 am //

    Well, I guess I won’t be reviewing it here, when I finally get a copy 😉

    Thanks, Andrea, been looking forward to this since Best…

  2. Like Paul, I’ve been looking forward to this since Best of All Possible Worlds. Interestingly enough, I read a much more critical review of the book today. Nice to see an opinion on both sides.

  3. Well, I’m glad the style worked for someone. During this entire book I was utterly in awe of Lord’s imagination. Such cool things! The mindships, the wallrunning (though I would have appreciated having that explained in more detail, among other things), and especially the cultures. But all these details never came together in a way that I could enjoy. I think your comment that this style was true to life is very very true, but in my case that was a negative observation. I think that bringing all the details of life together into a knot that means something more than they would without the magic of narrative is one of the most important functions of stories. Galaxy Game did not do that and while I could appreciate so many details, that lack did not feel like a neat trick to me, but rather like a failure to do the magic of making 2 plus 2 equal ten thousand that really can blow my mind when reading.

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