It was that hour of the game when sweat and blood began to rub together, skin sliding on skin, smudging the marks of allegiance and territory and leaving only the grav-band colours to identify the two teams. The audience was global and the cacophony shocking. Every drop and pull and sink was cursed and celebrated. A mosaic composed of myriad images of frenzied supporters enveloped the Wall in a hemisphere of seething colour. Players would occasionally look outwards into that mad, tilted sky and add their voices in shouts of triumph or fury, but for the most part they saved their breath for speed.
Adrenalin spiked high in players and spectators alike, pushed by the high risk and higher stakes. This was the best part. It was ruined by unfriendly white light flooding the rooma dn washing out the rich, broad holo projection of seventeen carefully coordinated school slates. Cries of dismay rose up and as quickly died down at the sight of the schoolmaster standing in the doorway with a tired expression on his face.
Rafi is born into a community that regards his psionic abilities with fear and suspicion, as something to be tamped down and — if possible — cured. Having grown up with the spectre of his similarly-talented father’s misdeeds hanging over his head, he’s afraid of himself, as much as society is afraid of him. We first meet him at the Lyceum, a special school that appears to have been set up with the goal of studying and controlling its pupils’ gifts. Unfortunately for those who would control him, however, Rafi is learning as much from his fellow students as from his teachers.
It is never quite explained how the Lyceum comes to host not only troubled kids from Cygnus Beta, but youngsters from other worlds, whose skills are valued and developed within their own societies. The relationship feels an uneasy one, but for Rafi it’s a lifeline when one of his friends, Ntenman, finds a way to smuggle him off-world and away from the Lyceum’s confines.
This book felt, in many ways, like a partially completed jigsaw puzzle. Although the progression of time was generally linear, the pieces didn’t always seem to fit neatly together, and there were large gaps to fill in with only an oblique sentence or two for guidance. At other times, the narration lingered over beautiful and detailed scenes. The prologue was one particularly obvious example: although the vivid descriptions stayed with me, it was describing things that were at the time completely alien to me, and made sense only in hindsight. I had to go back and reread the beginning, once I reached the end, to situate it properly in relation to the rest of the text.
Although it works perfectly as a standalone novel, The Galaxy Game follows on from Lord’s earlier work The Best of All Possible Worlds, which I haven’t read (but now certainly want to). It’s more than possible that this would fill in some of the gaps of history and worldbuilding — but given the sheer depth and breadth of cultural complexity that Lord has constructed, it seems almost impossible that it would explain every detail. I particularly enjoyed the Sadiri pilots (whose approach to space travel put me in mind of the Guild Navigators in Dune), and of course, the Wall itself.
We learn about the Wall primarily through Rafi’s eyes, which gives us an innocent’s perspective on this vast and multi-layered game. He comes to Wallrunning as a sport, but it isn’t long before he’s sucked into the behind-the-scenes politics which suffuse the whole world (and the galaxy beyond). While Rafi is finding his feet in this new world, Ntenman is off attending to family business and trying to build his own reputation, his deliberate, sometimes clumsy machinations a sharp counterpoint to Rafi’s particular blend of political naïveté and innate people skills.
The Galaxy Game is unusual, in style and structure; it’s philosophical, understated, and often inconclusive. I really, really liked it, and was absorbed from the first page, but I still found the style required some adjustment. If you’re looking for a linear narrative with neatly-resolved plot arcs, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you enjoy literature-as-art, this is some seriously beautiful art.