A Gamble of Gods by Mitriel Faywood: A Review
Indiana Jones meets Star Wars meets Mission Impossible meets Romancing the Stone but it's fantasy and sci-fi and it somehow works...
Note: This review is also posted on Goodreads and Amazon; this helps authors so if you like it too, please do the same!
How to describe A Gamble of Gods? I suppose it’s technically a portal science fantasy. Or a fantasy with sci-fi elements. But it’s got a strong romance plot to it too. And a heavy whiff of court politics. It’s part Indiana Jones, dashing through forgotten temples; part Star Wars, with a Jedi/Sith plotline; and part Mission Impossible, with a tense mission in the final third (indeed, on its cover none other than fantasy legend Mark Lawrence describes it as “Mission Impossible for fantasy readers”, so who am I to argue)? All in all, it’s got more ingredients than a taster menu at a Gordon Ramsay joint.
But where such a hodgepodge of elements should normally spell doom for a debut, here it all seems to blend together to make this a fresh, startlingly original (while somehow still feeling old school) fantasy tale with surprisingly strong characterisation amid all the action. More than anything though, it’s just great fun – the overriding feeling of watching a classic 80s action adventure; Romancing the Stone, fantasy style.
What about the plot? Well, plot-wise you don’t actually find out what’s really going on until you’re at least a third of the way in. This would be frustrating if there wasn’t so much fun to be had in the meantime. All I can say here is that we meet three main protagonists on three different worlds. On an advanced world with Star Trek style technology, university researcher Kristian is suddenly hunted by an identity-changing serial killer with bizarre powers who massacres his students and announces Kristian is next. Meanwhile womaniser, adventure and treasure hunter Conor (sort of like Nathan Drake meets Indiana Jones) is on trouble on a medieval-style fantasy planet. Finally, Selena is an office worker in a near future London who is in therapy for her anxiety. These three characters will come together and realise that they are part of something big, with a whole bunch of special powers that come with it. If that sounds vague, then like I said it’s purposely so… but if you’re patient, then everything is explained and the plot suddenly zooms out to a pleasingly galactic scale.
Part of the fun of this novel is the action, which, until it calms down for the aforesaid romance and court politics in the final third, is pretty much non-stop. Faywood writes a fight scene with electric intent, fizzing with magic and weapons and bizarre powers and emotion and intensity. You never know when one is going to begin either; it sort of reminds me of those RPG style (Final Fantasy) video games where you walk into a room and suddenly a massive boss appears. (That’s a good thing, if you’re not a gamer.) Just when you think it’s calm, another frenzy of action rears its head.
But the characterisation is on point too. We take turns being in the heads of each of the three main characters, and although for a while they remain fairly template – Kris is the brooding science guy with dark secrets, Conor is the womanising Indiana Jones figure, loyal as is he is grumpy and unpredictable, Selena is the initially nervous mysterious beauty with Jean Grey-like God powers – it soon becomes clear that the narrative trick in this book is their bond with each other. Without giving anything away, there is a particular plot device to explain why they get so close so quickly, and it works as a brilliant vehicle to explore bonds of friendship that go beyond friendship but stop short of love – although Kris and Selena also definitely explore the love side, as we shall see in a second.
There’s comedy, too. I particularly loved an android horse whose enthusiastic licking also cures wounds, who gets some of the best lines. The banter between Conor and Kris also works well. Faywood keeps it light for most of the time, but when it goes dark, it goes very dark and pleasingly gory, and this works, too. This is not as easy to pull it off as she makes it seem.
Once we’ve finally established the plot, had a whole bunch of action scenes in the old school fantasy world (the Indiana Jones bit) and had a breather at the alien planet base (the Star Wars plot set-up) we then get to the final heist section - the mission. This is where this book really comes together and shines, and I really started to love it at this point. It’s a brilliant mesh of comedy, court politics, romance, mystery, and action. Each gets its due, but it never feels disjointed. There’s a particularly notable bit where is seems to morph into pure romance – for ages we get this slow foreplay between two characters, sort of Pride and Prejudice but with more neck kissing – and I wondered if we would get to the main plotline – but it’s done so skilfully that I sort of went with it and quite enjoyed the Sarah J Maas detour, and soon we were back into the thrust of things.
Somehow, amongst all this, Faywood sneaks in a convoluted but also followable complicated court plot, full of Machiavellian manoeuvrings and multiple twists. It’s actually very clever plotting, made all the more impressive by the fact that I was so busy as a reader focusing on the will-they-won’t-they that I didn’t realise the plot being manoeuvred around me in time for the satisfying denouement.
Is it perfect? No, like most debuts it suffers from some pacing issues (the first third), the villain was a little one-note and the plot can get a little confusing at times. But such is every debut ever. But it’s clear to me that in this series Faywood will go from strength to strength, and it will be fun watching her take this brilliant formula and perfect it even more (hopefully with even more sarcastic android horse content).
Overall, this was a book that managed to have an old school, generic adventure feel while also feeling new, original and fresh, and that’s almost as much sorcery as the book’s magic system. It’s a wildly fun ride that blends a ton of ingredients into one dish until the reader is begging for seconds, and it will make you care for the characters as much as you enjoyed the thrills. It’s one of the best debuts I’ve read recently – and I guarantee you won’t read anything like it this year.