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Review: Game

Review: Game

Title: Game
Author: Barry Lyga
Published: 2013
Length: 517 pages

My star rating: ★ ★ ★

In this sequel to I Hunt Killers, seventeen-year-old Jasper Dent continues to struggle with his identity as the son of an infamous (and now escaped) serial killer. Having helped apprehend the Impressionist in his own small town, Jazz now finds himself working with the NYPD and the FBI chase the “Hat-Dog” killer in New York City after the killer scrawled his name on a victim’s body. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Connie gets involved in a very different way. Tired of being passed over and left out, she throws caution to the wind in hopes of making her own impact on the case.

Not to spoil anything, but I strongly suggest that you go into this book knowing that it ends with three major cliffhangers; in fact, it feels unfinished, as if it were first part of a longer book (maybe it was). If you read Game, you’ll probably want to have the final book, Blood of My Blood, close at hand so that you can continue immediately. The abrupt ending jarred me and, honestly, made me kind of angry–I hate when authors leave their audiences hanging to the degree that Barry Lyga did here.

With that out of the way, I’ll also say that I absolutely loved the first book, I Hunt Killers. It was very reminiscent of my beloved Hannibal trilogy in all the best ways and was a real breath of fresh air in YA lit. This one had yet more glowing reviews, so I thought for sure I would love it even more.

I didn’t.

I thought the idea of the “game” the NYC killer plays was intriguing and original (then again, I don’t read many crime novels), and I certainly didn’t figure things out hundreds of pages before Jazz did, which is always a plus. The gore in this one bothered me a little more than the gore in the first book did, though. I don’t know why. (“Hat-Dog” is also way too close to hot dog.)

In the first book, Lobo’s Nod made a perfect, small stage for Jazz’s psychological battles. The limited size of the town kept all the action concentrated. Moving the story to New York just felt…lazy. As a setting, it’s overused–and that’s an understatement–but it also puts some major distance between Jazz and the rest of the cast. The overall narrative suffers as a result.  It’s also a lot harder to buy Jazz’s involvement in murder cases when the NYPD and FBI are involved.

My favorite thing about IHK was how character-driven it was. It was especially strong as a character study of Jazz; Game fails in this regard, in part because only half of it is told from Jazz’s POV.

Jazz’s habit of fretting over the possibility (probability?) that he will someday become a serial killer just like his father got under my skin a bit in the first book, but in this book it drove me nuts. Unlike before, Connie and his best friend Howie aren’t there to talk sense into him, and–except for his aunt, Samantha, who’s far and away the best new character–the adults in his life are not supportive and understanding, as they were before. In that regard, I suppose this book is darker, but it’s also more disheartening and less engaging. I do have to ask: are all teenage boys this angsty? Or is it just male protagonists in YA books (i.e., Harry Potter, Adam Parrish, Ronan Lynch)?

I’d also like to add that, unpleasant as the last scene was for Jazz, I appreciated that he got a wake-up call: he can’t sweet-talk and manipulate his way out of everything. Being Billy Dent’s son doesn’t make him infallible; he’s still a vulnerable, very human teenage boy. That was refreshing.

I found Howie less charming and funny than in the previous book as well. Jazz’s father, Billy, was just as infuriating–though also more…present, to his detriment–as before. But of the recurring characters, the one who suffered the most was Connie.

She becomes a POV character in Game, and the change does not work in her favor. First, she deliberately ignores Jazz’s request that she not go to New York. She comes prepared for sexytimes (without asking him about it first), which Jazz does not feel ready for–but it’s Jazz, not Connie, who’s made to feel bad about the outcome. He feels guilty for rejecting her in bed; meanwhile, Connie is hurt and angry. After all…

She wasn’t self-centered, but she also wasn’t blind. She knew she had it going on and that there were basically only two good excuses for a guy not wanting to take advantage of her willingness: gay or dead. (132)

She’s not self-centered, though. Really. We swear. And there’s no other reason a guy wouldn’t want to fuck her. Also, okay, your boyfriend isn’t ready–so either deal with it or just break up with him and find someone who is, already!

Connie emotionally manipulates her parents to get what she wants, even though they’re just trying to keep her safe (there was a serial killer loose in her hometown not six months earlier, for God’s sake!). She complains about being seen as a useless doll or something, but there’s absolutely no build-up to that; we never see anyone dismiss or underestimate Connie, and yet…it’s a sudden problem for her. Such a problem that Connie decides to play ball with an anonymous texter/caller–one that she has every reason to think may well be a serial killer–without going to her parents or the cops first. She was so utterly brainless, so selfish, so overconfident and arrogant, that I was more than happy with the way her subplot played out in the last fifty pages.

But worst of all, the rest of Connie’s character is reduced to “the Black Girl” in Game. Not that she’s a token–but her race and/or someone else’s racism towards her is brought up constantly in her POV chapters. Of course Connie and her family would likely face racism in a small Southern town; I’m not arguing that at all. But Connie’s character ought to transcend race (as in the case of, say, Clarice Starling’s best friend Ardelia Mapp). She should be more than the color of her skin, the texture of her hair. In some ways, she is (or tries to be), but then Lyga has to go and remind you, “Hey, in case you forgot, Connie’s black!”

There’s another, more minor black character in Detective Hughes, as well as a totally pointless Latina character. Neither of them are defined by race the way that Connie is.

Speaking of the Latina, Agent Morales, she’s an undeveloped, poor man’s Starling/Scully type character–the Hot Female FBI Agent. Only in her case, she uses her body and sexuality to her advantage…which I could get behind, if Jazz hadn’t sneeringly called her out on it in her very first scene. And instead of standing her ground and making it clear that she would never pull that crap on a minor, Morales gets embarrassed and apologizes, because apparently she was trying to sex up a minor in order to manipulate him. (That scene made me so angry I almost didn’t finish the book. Unfortunately, while Morales improves, but her character arc goes nowhere.)

As I mentioned before, Jazz’s Aunt Samantha is by far the strongest new addition to the Dent trilogy cast. She only appears in a few chapters, but they are the highlights of the book. Then again, I consider Jazz’s family history and semi-mysterious childhood one of the most compelling aspects of the overall plot, so I guess it’s no surprise that I wanted to see more of his long-lost relatives.

Despite all that criticism I just typed, I did like the book (well…except for most of Connie’s chapters). It’s well-written and original as far as YA goes, and I appreciate a YA series with a male main character. The aforementioned cliffhangers really sink the book, though. Maybe if I had known to check out 2 and 3 together, I wouldn’t feel that way. As I said before, however, I feel like I read 500 pages and was then rudely denied any kind of ending or closure. Even books in a series ought to be able to stand alone. Game really can’t.

I still have somewhat high hopes for the conclusion of this crime saga, but I don’t really know when I’ll get my hands on it.

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