The Game of Love and Death
Spoiler Rating: Moderate-to-Highish
The Game of Love and Death is one of those books that left me all This book totally earns four and a half stars, it’s glorious, where is my tissue box.
But once I had a good sleep and got over the sniffles, a swarm of unanswered questions descended—and you can guess how I responded to that. (Badly.)
Antony and Cleopatra. Helen of Troy and Paris. Romeo and Juliet. And now…Henry and Flora.
For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.
Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?
Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured—a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.
The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.
Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget.
The style’s simple, but offered some excellent dialogue and great descriptions. Take this exchange, between Henry and his best friend Ethan, both fresh out of the showers after baseball practice:
Simple, vivid, natural. Love it.
Race and Sexuality
This book doesn’t pretend that the 1930s were kind to black or gay people. It features numerous black characters (including Flora, her grandmother Marion, and her uncle Sherman), a gay character (Ethan), and a lesbian character (Helen, who admittedly is only present for a couple pages), each of whom suffers within a grossly racist and homophobic society.
I’m neither black nor an expert in 1930s race relations, and can’t speak with authority about how well (or thoroughly) this book portrays racism and its effects. If anyone reading this could point me toward an analysis of racism in this book, they’d have my undying gratitude.
That said, I appreciated the book’s awareness of/attention to the horribleness of racism. Here’s a heartbreaking and rage-inducing scene from Flora’s childhood, in which all of the local schools corral their students into a park to greet a famous pilot, Mr. Lindbergh:
Henry and Flora have numerous conversations about race and racism, such as here, when Henry makes an insensitive comment about which restaurant they should go to (this being their first time meal out together, and Henry not pausing to consider that his usual restaurants were racist establishments):
Henry has the luxury of forgetting Flora’s race; Flora does not.
The book’s gay and lesbian characters fare better than the black characters, but that didn’t prevent my blood pressure from spiking for their sake.
Ethan’s sexuality appears to be an open secret in his family, who are decidedly not supportive. His father offered numerous little gems of advice like this one, when (in the privacy of their home) Ethan’s kid sister briefly hands him her doll:
Ethan’s subplot revolves around his sexuality—his struggle with it, his first romance, how these things affect his life—and I loved it. Loved it while it tore my heart to bits.
Yeah, instalove reliably makes me froth at the mouth, but I was okay with Henry and Flora’s instalove. After all, there’s—gasp—a logical explanation for it built into the premise of the book, what with the specifically-chosen-to-participate-in-the-Game thing. The moment they set eyes on each other, their destined love clicked into place:
The instalove was made even more palatable by Flora’s steadfast resistance of it:
Even when Flora and Henry receive a letter explaining that they’re players in the Game—and that Flora will die if they don’t forsake everything for each other—Flora stands firm:
How awesome is that? These aren’t two stereotypical-YA-novel teens pledging their undying love in the face of adversity; they’re two people arguing about the validity of their feelings and whether or not they’ll let tampering immortals shape their destinies. I am so in love with this, I can’t even tell you.
Henry’s best friend Ethan (whom I love) exits the story abruptly as it’s barreling toward the climax. Poof, gone. No resolution for his (fairly substantial) subplot, no hint of what becomes of him.
Well, maybe there’s a hint. Shortly after he vanishes from the story, his little sister dreams about his future. Perhaps we’re to assume that the dream is a foretelling? If so, I would’ve wanted the dream’s validity to be made clear.
You can’t see it, but I’m totally shaking a fist right now. His plot was one of my favorites, and it’s aggravating to not know what becomes of him. This feels like a major misstep on the author’s part.
Love and Death
Awesome: Love and Death are immortal beings complete with their own flaws, fears, and desires. They screw up, they succumb to their emotions, and they change over the course of the story.
Not awesome: Death’s character arc, which is significant to the story, is a mess.
We’re shown her inner turmoil throughout the book, and the Important Lesson she learns related to that turmoil during the climax, but the resulting change in her character (as seen in the final chapter) is glossed-over and confusing. I’d expect a carefully-crafted resolution to such a major character arc, but nope. It lands with a thud. The author needed to add a few paragraphs—or at least a few expertly-crafted sentences—to complete Death’s character arc.
On top of that, the Important Lesson she learns seems odd; it’s something I would’ve expected her to already know and proudly embrace. I honestly don’t know how she could’ve existed so long without already knowing. Feels like the author made her unrealistically dumb for the sake of the plot. (If Death already knew the Important Lesson, either the book would’ve ended tragically, or Love and Death wouldn’t have played the Game to begin with.)
I’m also plagued by unanswered questions about Love and Death. How did they come to exist? We’re told Death is the only one of her kind, but that description isn’t attached to Love; does this mean there are other Loves out there? Why do they play the Game? Why doesn’t Love refuse to play, if it wears him down so much? Why does Death have more powers than Love? Why does Love gain new powers at the end of the book?
And on, and on. I’m not the type of reader who wants every little detail spelled out, but the unanswered questions raised in this book feel like gaping holes in the worldbuilding.
I also have questions about the Game, the most pressing of which is What on earth was Love thinking?
Love has never won the Game, and his losses have worn him down to a bleak little husk. So I was baffled when, as he and Death are hammering out the rules of this iteration of the Game, Love chooses to make his win conditions incredibly hard:
He literally thinks to himself, How can I make this depressing, impossible-to-win Game even more impossible to win? Aha! And I have no idea why he does this, except to make the climax more climactic.
You could argue that he does this because a kiss/sex was given more freely in 1937 than at any other point in history, but (a) I don’t know if that’s even true, and (b) the book never offers this explanation.
Yeah, I listed the romance as something I loved; doesn’t mean it didn’t also let me down.
The first issue is its occasional foray into the land of too-staged-to-be-believed. Henry and Flora’s interactions are generally pretty realistic, but sometimes I was harshly reminded that a writer was typing out their dialogue with the desire to make readers squeal.
In this scene, in which Henry takes a bouquet of flowers to Flora’s club, but chickens out just before he knocks on the club’s back door. As he lifts a trashcan’s lid to throw the bouquet away, Flora steps out of the club in a bathrobe, catching him in the act:
Is this scene cute? Yep. Does the dialogue strike me as realistic? Nope. Do romances suffer when authors indulge in cute-but-unrealistic dialogue. Definitely.
But I had a problem with the romance that was more significant than the occasional eye-rolling.
The book’s blurb states that Henry and Flora are the next in a long line of epic romances, following the likes of Helen of Troy and Paris, of Cleopatra and Antony. Great, I thought. Epic romance. Let’s do this.
The romance is far from epic. It’s two teens of no social or cultural significance quietly falling in love. There’s no risk of their love (or deaths), say, sparking a devastating war or changing their society; whether they win or lose the Game, nothing in the world around them will change.
Because my expectations were so off, the romance felt bland. I suspect I would’ve enjoyed it more if there’d been less emphasis on the epicness of the Game’s previous players.
That said, I do like the idea that an “ordinary” couple’s romance is as powerful and significant as the romance of a prince and a demigoddess/queen. Would’ve been nice if the book had taken care to underline, italicize, and explain that point.
I’m still deciding whether this book merits three or three-and-a-half stars. Regardless of its flaws, this book has a good heart and left me sniveling, so perhaps it deserves that extra half star. Hmmm.