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L J Smith – The Forbidden Game

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Seven teenagers battle against evil to free their friend from her abominable fate.

Publisher: Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 746
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-84738-738-7
First Published: 1994 (as three separate books); 2010 (as one volume)
Date Reviewed: 8th September 2010
Rating: 4/5

The Forbidden Game is a bind-up of three books that form a trilogy: The Hunter, The Chase, and The Kill. Please note that I will be reviewing all three at once and as such will only be providing a bare basic synopsis.

When Jenny runs out of planning time for her boyfriend Tom’s birthday she rushes around trying to find a board game that would interest her sixteen-year-old friends. Upon finding herself chased she comes across what appears to be a mural of a shop drawn on the front of a store that has shut down. But “appears” is the word, for on closer inspection the painted door handle is an actual handle, the door a real door, and she sneaks inside. It’s a game shop, a creepy place, and the gorgeous but strange teenage owner is selling ancient and niche board games. She takes the one he suggests, discovering she’s powerless to resist. But when the guy says he will see her “at nine” he means it. Jenny and her friends have a paper house to create and a game of nightmares to play, one that will literally imprison them in their dreams. And even if they get through it all, who’s to say that that will be the end?

When I picked up this tome, never having heard of Smith before, I was expecting a darker paranormal than Twilight, and while initially I was disappointed it didn’t last for long. Definitely of importance is that this book was written long before Twilight and thus long before the gushy romance paranormal novels. It’s old school dark fantasy, with real horror. You can try to compare it to recent releases but that’s pretty difficult to do, regardless of the fact that Smith couldn’t possibly have been inspired by the stories of today. You could probably compare it to paranormal series of the 1990’s but since I’ve only read this one I’ll leave that discussion to those in the know.

So I was after a dark book. There were always going to be limits on this because of the age recommendation, but apart from the very first part of the very first game (in other words the first round of The Hunter) there is little to be frightened of in a big dark house, evil Shadow Men or not. The teenagers must each conquer their worst nightmares and they are all pretty standard nightmares, handled in a standard way, which makes them just regular reads. They aren’t given enough time and it’s all over too quickly.

This standard has changed by the final book where the setting is a still-predictable but far more spooky place, one which many people are likely to identify with. The gruesome aspects may, again, be somewhat predictable, but the horror factor is far more apparent, as you might expect for a book called The Kill. The scene where the group first come across old arcade games is difficult to read in a very satisfying way, and Smith goes into details, ones that everyone thinks about but then forgets. She makes it more disturbing than usual.

The enemy of the book, the anti-hero, is a Shadow Man, lesser than a demon but a literal world away from not-too-bad. Julian fell in love with human Jenny when she was five years old, and the feelings of being watched that she’s endured all her life turn out to be warranted when Julian admits he has coveted her ever since he laid eyes on her. He is a typical bad guy, and you know what will happen to him, but Smith has included in his personality some traits that make his part readable.

As to the other characters there are less stereotypes. The heroine isn’t an action hero but she’s no clumsy damsel either, she’s realistic and a good antidote for anyone sick of Bella Swans and Luce Prices. You do have your gutsy females, your feminine females, but you don’t have your heroic gallant boys, and the females don’t stick to their personalities. Everyone changes back and forth, they each have their interests and different appearances but there are no strong reasons to prefer one to another which makes a nice change.

Talking of non-heroic males I think I should probably say, before I invite dispute, that Tom is very protective of Jenny and does do some amazing things but he also sulks a bit, in other words he is your average person and for that realistic.

In order to create a different world Smith makes use of various mythology and mystical conventions, blending them together to good effect. She even puts a dark spin on fairy lore.

There are a few spiritual aspects to the trilogy that Smith employs. One is that a person controls who they are and that no one can tell you to do otherwise. She uses this to demonstrate that although Julian, on the face of it, is much more powerful than the teenagers, a little thought can cause his power to crumble. This strength of thought is used in all three books, especially in The Chase where the teenagers must walk through illusions to escape. Smith refers to those who walk on hot coals to illustrate that we can control a lot of things with our minds. A somewhat disguised theme is believing in yourself, in The Hunter it is all about believing in what you’re trying to achieve.

An interesting quotation, not unrelated:

When you get to a certain extreme, the elements all sound like one another – fire sounds like water sounds like wind.

The biggest topic of the trilogy is, of course, good versus evil. Smith blurs the lines that separate them in ways that seem lost to the paranormal genre at present. Julian really is evil, very evil, but he struggles with feelings of love and devotion, and protection. He says he’ll never change – he’s devilish, why would he? – but he keeps that goodness throughout.

I said I couldn’t make a comparison but that’s not strictly true because there is one obvious comparison to be made. The book Jumanji had been released a decade before, though it is not likely that Smith saw the film version because that was released in 1995. The reference, if true, concerns The Hunter, the bringing alive of a board game. I think that’s something each reader has to make their own mind up on.

Smith’s writing is generally simple. The inclusions of cultural elements are great excuses to open up Wikipedia and do some further reading, and the obvious regards to 1990’s life are good reminders that paranormal existed pre-2000. As someone in their twenties I loved reading a book both written and set in the time when I was growing up. Smith doesn’t have any weird literary tendencies, which is nice, and the only thing I could find worthwhile pointing out in this respect was her metaphor of “dandelion fluff” for someone’s hair, which is rather cute.

Here, in one large book, are three related but separate stories thanks to three different games and settings. The only bad thing about the bind-up is that there is never any true danger in the books and because of this I would recommend any would-be readers not to read them in one long haul like I did. Because it does trundle along in a decided pattern, it can become boring in that easy to put down way, which doesn’t happen during the first book. Yes, that is definitely my advice: read plenty of other books in between.

Before there were loved-up vampires, angels, and ghosts, there was L J Smith, a woman who wasn’t afraid to do her own thing. The Forbidden Game may not be perfect but it is a brilliant alternative to what is being produced now and, dare I say, far more worthwhile.

Will I be reading the rest of her books, even those that deal with vampires and love? Hell yes I will, for I’ve definitely been bitten by the bug.

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September 12, 2010, 2:04 pm

Isn’t this the author of the Vampire Diaries series? I tried to read them once and I thought they were incredibly badly written, but then some people really like them a lot better than Twilight. For me, it is the other way around. Glad to hear you enjoyed these.

Charlie: Yes, it is. I was surprised when I found out actually, because I’d thought the Vampire Diaries were made for the Twilight generation. I think I like both this and Twilight a similar amount, but they are both very different. I can see why you like Twilight a lot better than Smith, I think Meyer’s stories are more compelling in some ways.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

September 14, 2010, 2:17 am

Interesting, I’d never heard of this series before. I’m not sure if it’s my kind of book, but if I came across it at the library I’d certainly give it a look. I love the premise of getting a game from a mysterious shop.

Charlie: Hi Kim, those were my initial thoughts too. I think what’s good about it is that it isn’t within extremes of any one genre so if you’re not sure if it’s your kind of book it’s a nice way to introduce you to the concepts so you can decide if you’d like to read other books.



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