Title: The True Game
Author: Sheri S. Tepper
Publisher: Ace Books
I found this book by accident, actually, wandering around the silent back rooms of my university library's special collections, looking for something else. It was hidden in one of the farthest rooms of all, in the section for children's books, although it's hardly a children's book, really. It's actually a 3-in-1 trilogy consisting of the books King's Blood Four, Necromancer Nine, and Wizard's Eleven, previously published in the 1980s. Although Sheri Tepper usually writes standalone novels, this book fits very well together in one volume and could even be considered one book in three parts due to the continuity of the overall plot. Also, there are six other books that continue the story beyond this book: a trilogy from the point of view of Mavin, called Manyshaped because she is a Shifter, and a trilogy from the point of view of Jinian, a Wizard girl who does not appear until Wizard's Eleven in this book. These books are called respectively: Dervish Daughter, Jinian Footseer, Jinian Star-Eye; and The Song of Mavin Manyshaped, The Flight of Mavin Manyshaped, and The Search of Mavin Manyshaped.
Most of Tepper's novels involve a particular planet (sometimes Earth itself, often not) with a secret that the main character (usually female) must find out to save the world from destruction by various forms of evil, often environmentally related. Her novels usually have strong feminist and environmental themes, but this book does not, although it does have its own set of creatures unique to the world and having a starfish-shaped structure. Perhaps this was one of her earlier works and she was still exploring her own ideas before writing the masterpieces that anyone who knows her work is familiar with, like Gibbon's Decline and Fall or Six Moon Dance. This is one of her only books with a male protagonist. In any case, while being a completely different sort of book than her usual, this story is also a gem in its own right.
Written in first person (where most of her books except the other True Game trilogies are in third person), we see into the mind of a boy, Peter, who at the beginning of the story is struggling with discovering his particular Talent at Mertyn's House, a school that teaches the True Game. Anyone who has a Talent is part of this Game and can become involved in Games on various scales at any time. As a teaching tool, the Game becomes something like chess, with various pieces that are moved in certain ways and have certain abilities and characteristics. It is such a part of the society, however, that virtually everything revolves around the rules of the Game. Most common roles of a medieval society are filled by various Gamesmen, who as Peter learns on his journeys have various strengths and combinations of eleven distinct Talents. These Talents are: Reading (telepathy), Flying, Necromancy, Beguilement, Healing, Moving (telekinesis), Seeing (clairvoyance/foresight), Travel (teleportation), Sorcery (power storage), Firestarting, and Shapeshifting. For example, Armigers, one of the primary Gamesmen, have only Flying, but they are very good at it. Heralds have Moving and Flying because their main duty is to fly above a Game or other event and declare participants and reasons and the like, making themselves audible by Moving the air. Most Gamesmen have two to four talents which may vary in strength.
According to the records, there are thousands of combinations and each one has a distinctive title and outfit, although of course there is a much smaller number that are common. People who have no Talent are called pawns, and many Gamesmen consider them nothing more than literal pawns, to be used in the course of a Game as necessary. The source of all power is heat, from the sun, or fire, or even underground heat. When all available natural power within reach of a Game is exhausted, Gamesmen will pull heat from the bodies of nearby pawns without even realizing it, often taking their lives as a result. When a Gamesman dies or is incapacitated in a Game, it is called "lost in play." There is actually a twelfth Talent, which is the ability to null all of the other Talents. The people who possess this Talent, called Immutables because they cannot be affected by Gamesmen except by purely physical means, all live together in a particular area next to the lands of the True Game. They keep to themselves for the most part and do not have anything to do with the Game.
It is this complexity of Talent that lends such an interesting background to the plot. Peter meets a variety of people, from Healers to Kings, from Wizards to Bonedancers, along his journey of discovery about himself and his world. Sometimes he knows what Talents these people have, but sometimes not, and he spends quite a bit of time watching people and deciding what they are capable of doing, either to him or for him. Throughout the book, one sees through Peter's eyes and knows what he knows and discovers the world along with him, making this a very enjoyable read. The three books take place over a span of at least two years, giving a lot of opportunity for Peter to grow with his powers, which, as he is the main character of the book, are considerable.
Not just Peter, but all of the main characters are portrayed very well. In King's Blood Four, we meet a power-hungry Prince, a self-centered, self-deluded Witch, an old, lovable Seer, a wise, helpful Wizard. In Necromancer Nine we meet a deceitful Trader, an intelligent, secretive Shifter, an evil, manipulative Demon. In Wizard's Eleven we meet another Wizard, this one young and mysterious; another King, this one inexperienced and love-struck; and others. Throughout the book the Gamesmen of Barish play an increasingly large role in the story and in Peter's personal development. Later in the story, people that might have only appeared briefly near the beginning reappear and find their proper place, sometimes where they are least expected. Tepper draws everything together to a neat close but leaves an opening for a continuation with a uplifting conclusion. I was honestly very surprised to find out that there were two other trilogies because this one had been wrapped up so tidily.
At any rate, even if this is not Tepper's typical writing, it is quite a unique fantasy story. I highly recommend it, and while I have not read them yet myself, I encourage anyone who reads this book and likes it to find the other books in the series. And if you have never read Tepper before, this is a good way to start, as it introduces her unique style of painting worlds without the possible turn-off of her feminism or environmentalism.
If you're looking for it, the original books are likely out of print by now, but libraries and such, or maybe bookstores, ought to have the compiled volume. And as I mentioned before, my university library has it if you're desperate (as soon as I return it, anyway).
Submitted for the Everything Literary Quest.