I've never read anything by Richelle Mead before so zero preconceptions here. It's hard to find credible science fiction. This is not Asimov, which is good because it would be so much blah blah between the armed fights, arguing, drinking, sex, traveling, parenting, and sarcasm in this book. While low on science - it's futuristic but not so far as to be alien to us - Gameboard of the Gods (GOTG) is an ambitious novel with intriguing ideas about the myriad tradeoffs of religion, technology, freedom, wealth and class, and loyalty to country, family, faith. How much autonomy are people willing to give up for superior safety, health or education? How loyal must people be to sign away part of their lives to protect their country? What would you expect to give (up?) in return for superhuman powers? How far would you go to protect your heritage or question authority? For anyone who likes to ponder existential questions, these Orwellian thoughts come fast and frequent throughout GOTG.
However, there is not a lot of subtlety in Mead's presentation of these dilemmas. If this were a grander scifi story, I think there would be less black and white, but there isn't time! The action and the dialogue doesn't pause much. I was utterly sucked in and didn't want to do anything during my downtime except get back to reading. I chewed over the ideas in the book after I finished it because there was so much going on. Then I wanted to read it all over again. In essence, this is a mystery novel. We meet our protagonists and the problem (mystery) is presented: pure-blood aristocrats are getting ritually murdered during full moons. The government hasn't been able to contain it, so they are forced to call in their last resort: Justin March. Seriously, this is the plot. Solving serial killings.
So, it's a mystery. That's cool, I love a good mystery. I guess you could call it a very complicated fantasy too, but I hesitate to call GOTG high fantasy. It's all a little too casual and light to be epic. I appreciate the scope Mead is playing with because it brings in so many interesting elements, but there is no noble quest here. Justin is well-paid to do his job. Also, the characters don't seem to be in control of their destinies and are, as the title suggests, mere pawns in a much bigger picture. There is no real doubt that our valiant heroes will succeed more or less with no suffering or loss for the greater good, no leaving home to trudge a dangerous, unsure path. GOTG is all just a little too pat. Justin has a tough choice to make and he spends the entire book avoiding it, but it's obvious that acceptance is inexorable. It's just a matter of when and how badly he will bungle up his relationships when he gets to that point. The other primary character, Mae Koskinen, has even less say over her destiny. Her fate is tied to Justin's in a way that is hugely ironic given her issues with autonomy. I'm curious how Mead is going to write her way out of that corner.
Mae and Justin are fun characters, though. Neither is entirely likable, but they have their charms too. I enjoy complex personalities livening things up. Justin is a dissolute rogue who happens to be naturally brilliant and naturally immodest. Mae is a perfect physical specimen of this new world but she is more automaton than woman. Their flaws are reinforced throughout the story so you never get a chance to forget their worst sides, but Mead humanizes them enough. I found myself liking Justin in spite of myself, which was a nice surprise, and Mae is softened by her empathy for other people even if she won't let others empathize with her. The girl needs a hug! It also helps that nearly all the other characters they interact with (excepting Justin's family and Leo) are even less appealing than they are. I know, ringing endorsement, but it just worked for me.
I hope Mead writes fast and has a rock-solid structure for the story arc. There is so much going on - mostly enjoyably - that it would be a shame to lose the momentum of this novel into the sequels.