Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review: The Forbidden Game

The Forbidden Game
L.J. Smith
Trade Paperback, 750 pages
Simon Pulse, June 8, 2010
(first published 1994)
Horror, Mystery, Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction

I read this back in October, finishing it exactly on Halloween night.  That's the right time of year to get into this book, because certain events in it do take a bit of a macabre turn, which is not my usual cup of tea, considering my opinion of the horror genre.  However, Smith is such a masterful, imaginative storyteller that the book kept me hooked all the way to the end.  It takes a remarkable writer to be able to maintain a reader's interest even when that reader isn't quite comfortable with what's going on in the story.

This is actually an omnibus edition, containing three books previously published separately: The Hunter, The Chase, and The Kill
At the beginning of the first book, a group of high school friends get together one night, in order to celebrate a birthday.  Tom, Jenny Thornton's boyfriend, is a star athlete, and her childhood sweetheart.  Jenny wants him to have a very special birthday party, so she goes shopping for a special game, one which will ensure everyone, including Tom, will have a good time.

She does purchase a game, packaged in a simple white box, from a mysterious, silver-haired boy named Julian, whom she meets in a very mysterious store that specializes in all kinds of weird items. 
Once she and her friends open the box and start to play, they realize this is much more than an ordinary party game.  It's an actual portal into the Shadow World, where each of the friends will have to confront their most dreaded nightmares.  This is where I nearly stopped reading, except that I couldn't.  I just had to see what lay beyond that portal.... 

Jenny, the female protagonist of all three books, turns out to be Julian's obsession.  He is a Shadow Man, and has been observing her from his world ever since her birth.  He's madly in love with her; in fact, he stages the first game, as well as the subsequent ones, for the sole purpose of winning her love.  Although this sounds very romantic, Julian's behavior actually becomes scary.  He has all of the characteristics of a stalker, dangerously bent on attaining the one girl he knows he's not supposed to have, the girl he's drawn to like a moth to the flame...

The second book is even scarier; all but one of the friends have emerged from the game, which has subsequently been stolen. Julian devises new riddles to keep the friends in his web of mystery, which means they must constantly attempt to solve them, as the consequences, if they do not, can be deadly. 

This book also introduces Aba, Dee's wise, artistic grandmother, who loves to tell African fables. She's also a great help to the group of friends as they do their best to outwit Julian.

In this book as well as the third, the group is drawn into a new game -- a "treasure hunt", as Julian calls it.  The prize is a double one, and all the friends are very motivated to attain it.... 

As is evident from what I've written thus far, this is a fascinatingly complex story, full of very unexpected twists and turns, scary suspense, and even some very touching moments.  The end, too, is totally unexpected.  I was saddened and surprised, but realized that it was a totally fitting ending, nevertheless.

The story has strongly drawn characters.  I especially like Jenny. Her strength comes from what she is -- a truly innocent soul.  She therefore possesses the power of Good, although she's not aware of this.  She is very loyal to her boyfriend, Tom, in spite of the fact that she initially feels a very powerful attraction to Julian.  She is also the stabilizing center of her group of friends, the natural leader, even though no one has appointed her to this role.  She simply grows into it through her actions, which are geared to keeping her friends safe.  She feels responsible for them, knowing that, if it weren't for Julian's obsession with her, they wouldn't have been dragged into these strange, spooky adventures.

Dee is another of my favorite characters. She too, is a strong heroine, but in the physical sense, as Jenny is in the spiritual sense.  Dee is totally fearless, confronting evil head-on.  She has an intellectual side to her, however, which she downplays because she mistakenly believes she's inferior in this area. She, too, is a leader within the group, and a great ally to Jenny.

Then there's Julian.  He seems to be the quintessentially evil villain --  at least, at first.  But his love for Jenny changes him in unexpected ways. Unfortunately, he's not willing to accept these changes, as he feels they make him too vulnerable. At the end of the book, the reader is almost ready to forgive him for all his nefarious deeds, and he has become more of a dark, tragic hero.  Highly compelling stuff, this!  You want to hate him, but somehow, you can't, not completely.  He reminds me a bit of Damon in The Vampire Diaries, although I would say that Julian is much more attractive, as well as much more fascinating.
Jenny's boyfriend, Tom, emerges as a rather lackluster figure. Although he definitely loves Jenny, he doesn't seem to have the strong personality needed to fight for her love. I found him far less appealing than Julian, who simply took my breath away on more than one occasion, even as I practically bit my nails at the fear he inspired in me... Paradoxically, bad boys sometimes seem much more interesting than good boys.
I really loved the way the story wound itself around my mind, with all of its weird adventures, its gloomy atmosphere, and that sense of the uncanny that Smith handles so well. The book was constantly in my thoughts even when I wasn't actually reading it.

L.J. Smith has once again entertained and enthralled me with her characters, her incredibly rich powers of invention, and the flow of her story. She always  captures my attention, immersing me in the tale until the very last word has been read.  I might even want to re-read this collection at some future time!


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