THE PRIZE IN THE GAME
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Jo Walton won the Campbell Award for Best New Author on the strength of her novels The King’s Peace and The King’s Name. The Prize in the Game, an expansion of events which are briefly described in The King’s Prize, follows several friends whose lives are torn asunder by society’s ambitions for them and, eventually, the curse of a goddess.
What plot there is in The Prize in the Game is slow moving and inconsequential. While a novel with strong world building and good characters can overcome this flaw, none of Walton’s characters are particularly sympathetic and her world, at least as much as is shown within the confines of this particular novel, appears designed to promote Walton’s pagan agenda rather than for the purposes of the narrative. This isn't to say that Walton doesn't know her world intimately, merely that the details of the way the world works appear to be something which are incorporated into her earlier novels and taken for granted in the current one.
There are several places throughout the novel where it feels as if Walton has neglected to include scenes which demonstrate her characters’ abilities. When the various cousins find themselves in a series of competitions, rather than show the competitions they must participate in, Walton glosses over most them, leaving the reader feeling as if a chunk of the novel was dropped. Not only does the reader want to see what happens at the races in Lagin or the competition in Muin, but also wants to live through the passage of time, rather than suddenly learn that three weeks or months or years have passed, which only adds to the disjointed nature of the novel.
One of the major points in the novel is the love growing between Conal, one of the claimants for the throne of Oriel, and Emer, a princess of Connat who serves as Conal’s charioteer. There is no passion in their relationship, however, and the reader is asked to accept their love for the exigencies of plot rather than because there seems to be any real spark between the characters. In fact, the only character who really seems to interact with other characters is Maga, Emer and Ellen's mother and the queen of Connat, and she doesn't appear until quite late in the book. Her influence, however, is felt from the earliest pages, possible because so much of what Ellen and Emer do is in reaction to their mother.
At only 233 pages, The Prize in the Game is blissfully short, however it feels as if it would have benefited from being longer, as then Walton could have provided more detail about her characters and, perhaps, made them more amiable. Similarly, she could have added more detail to the plot to make it able to sustain the length of the novel.
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