(This post originally appeared in Persephone Magazine.)
Akashic Books has long been at the indie forefront of interesting literature. Along with other fun releases like Simon’s Cat and Go the F—k to Sleep, they’ve expanded their stable to include books aimed at middle grade and young adult readers under their new imprint, Black Sheep. Game World by C.J. Farley is one of their first releases, and it’s a diverse, impressive world aimed at the advanced elementary school-aged reader on up to adults. My [now] 10-year-old daughter and I both read it, and I asked her thoughts on the book.
First, let’s talk about the book itself. Game World is the story of Dylan Rudee, a sixth grader living in Jamaica with his sister, Emma, and their bird-and-dinosaur-studying aunt they call The Professor. Nearly every kid at school is obsessed with playing Xamaica, a video game that involves mythical creatures, monsters, and a more magical version of Jamaica. Mee Corp., the company that owns it, is holding a tournament for “Game Changers,” where the top players will compete against one another for prize money. With some money troubles at home, Dylan is extra-motivated to get a spot in the tournament, as is his best friend Eli.
Then, through a rapid turn of events that I won’t entirely spoil, Dylan, Eli and Emma find themselves inside Xamaica, along with the game creator’s daughter, Ines. The connection between the game world and the real word is in peril, and though each kid has their own motivation for wanting to help Xamaica, of course things happen that make them question that motivation.
Farley writes in a straightforward way that is both accessible to younger readers but still interesting to adults. He doesn’t rely on adverb-heavy conversation tags — something J.K. Rowling is guilty of — to indicate emotion, and he does not condescend. Dylan sounds just like a reasonably mature kid his age, and Ines sounds a lot like a formerly pampered girl who has been thrust into chaos. Eli is in a wheelchair, and though he occasionally jokes about it like most people would, it doesn’t really read like a self-congratulatory stab at “Look at us, being inclusive!”
What is really diverse is Xamaica itself. The creatures contained within are a mix of Jamaican folklore, Caribbean history, and other fantasy-based characters one might see in a Tolkien book. Farley helpfully supplies a glossary at the back of the book, as well as a Recommended Reading list, which I imagine that information-hungry kids appreciate.
As he spoke, he puffed on his magical pipe, one that filled the air, not with smoke, but with bubbles. In each of the bubbles, pictures appeared, images from the tale he was telling — of giant spiders, cruel witches, and misty mountains. He wove a story about the time Queen Nanni challenged Anancy to a game of Shatranj. It was a game like chess, but magical. Nanni tried to cheat — she granted her pieces temporary life and pledged that they could live on as her servants if they helped her. She taught them Bangaran, a mystical martial art of which she was a master, and her pieces became great fighters. Desperate to win, she sacrificed piece after piece in wild attacks. In this game, when pieces were captured, they really perished. They begged for mercy, but Nanni said their pain was not her problem — she only sought victory. Soon she fell into the spider’s trap and was defeated. The pieces had been following her opponent’s designs all along, for he had promised them freedom, which makes life worth living. Nanni had tried to ensnare Anancy in a web of deceit. But Anancy was one of those spiders who was good at untying things.
There are a lot of side characters that were reasonably easy for me to remember, as far as who did what and who came from where in Xamaica, but I wondered how well my daughter kept track of everyone. I enjoyed the book immensely, but it’s interesting to read the same material as one’s child. Because one does not often see middle grade books reviewed — compared to adult and YA — much less see them reviewed from their intended audience’s point of view, I decided to interview my daughter, Grace, who turns 10 at the end of this month, about Game World, as well as her more general thoughts about reading.
Do you think the fast pace was sometimes hard to follow?
Yeah. I liked the book a lot,but sometimes it was confusing because there was just one thing going on, and then it switched to another thing, then it was back to the first thing. Over and over.
What did you think of the characters?
I thought that they were interesting. It was interesting to have one that was in a wheelchair, and they were different from us.
How do you mean different from us?
They were Jamaican, which I think is cool.
So you liked the setting?
Yeah. Its culture and how things are there. I liked the glossary in the back because it had some good information.
Did you have to look stuff up?
Every once in a while, I wondered what a thing was, but I pretty much just looked at the back when I was done with the book.
Did the context of the unfamiliar word give you a clue as to what it meant?
Yeah, plus in the book, it gave descriptions for some of the creatures. It was a cool book though. I liked it.
How did it compare to other fantasy books you’ve read?
To me it was kind of fantasy, but when I think of fantasy, I think of magic like in Harry Potter. So I’m not sure — Well, if someone asked what genre Game World was, I probably wouldn’t say fantasy.
What would you say?
Umm… I’m not really sure what I’d call it. Maybe a cross between realistic fiction and science fiction because at first in the beginning it was something that could happen to anyone. There was kid, and he was at school like anyone would be, and then all the sudden, he gets thrown into a video game, which, unless there was really a complicated technology, probably wouldn’t happen. Because it could happen if you had some sort of complicated technology.
Which is where the science fiction comes in.
Yes… I’ve never done this before [an interview about a book]. It would be harder if I had to write all this myself, but it’s easier because you’re asking me the questions.
Apart from this specific book, what do you look for in books you are interested in reading?
I look at the title and I sometimes read the summary, and also usually if the title gives away that it has something do with what I like or even the pictures on the front — like cats, or Pokémon, or Minecraft — I would think I would like it.
What kind of stories do you like? What appeals to you about the things that you like?
I like mostly adventure, but there’s a mix of other things too. I’m not sure.
Is there a sort of book you’re really not interested in?
I’m not a big fan of history or mystery — hey those rhyme!
Like historical fiction?
Yeah. A lot of times, when there’s a mystery involved in a story, the characters are still trying to figure it out, and I’ve already figured out the mystery long before and it kind of frustrates me that I have to read for awhile before they figure out the mystery and it’s just kind of annoying.
I mean some history things are cool. I like stories in the present, and not completely in the future because then it gets confusing, but maybe a little bit in the future.
What makes books like American Girl and Boxcar Children different?
I don’t remember those much. I read those a while ago. I wasn’t so sure if I was a big fan of American Girl, and the Boxcar Children was interesting, but I wasn’t something I was going to keep reading and reading every night. I’d rather read Warriors.
What makes you want to reread a book?
Most of the time, I reread Harry Potter books when I don’t have anything else to read, because it’s what I have. [She’s probably read through all seven books at least three times each.] Because it’s best for me to have a chapter book, so I have something to read for a week or so before I can read something else, and by then I probably have new library books or something.
What do you think about the books available for someone your age and reading level, say, something who is about 8-11?
I definitely recommend Harry Potter. I mean, there’s a lot of books available for someone like me, but it depends on what a person likes. There’s a lot of books in the world and there’s always at least one book someone likes.
Full Disclosure: Akashic/Black Sheep sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.