PHBC: The Forbidden Game by LJ Smith

theforbiddengameWhat’s it all about?

The Forbidden Game, a trilogy made up of The Hunter, The Chase and The Kill, begins when doting girlfriend Jenny Thornton buys a mysterious board game from an even more mysterious youth called Julian. Three deadly games ensue, each pitting Jenny against Julian and in which Jenny is often the prize.

 

That doesn’t sound very POINT HORROR

That’s because it really isn’t. The Forbidden Game is very much an oddity, which is why so many fans still remember it after all these years. To be honest, it’s an urban fantasy trilogy with some Nightmare on Elm Street-like features. LJ Smith, as you’ll know, went on to create The Vampire Diaries and there are some similarities between the two sagas.

 

But is there an unlikely gang of friends?

Of course. Jenny, our main character, goes on a good, old-fashioned journey of self-discovery. At the start she’s a simpering girlfriend, only defined by her relationship to Tom, who is as 100% cardboard as the little character he has to make for the board game.

Joining Jenny and Tom in the games are athletic (and early Sporty Spice prototype) Dee, Edina Monsoon alike Audrey (who can ONLY be portrayed by Amber from Clueless), awkward Cousin Zach, ditzy Summer and whiny Michael (whom the author is far fonder of than any reader I would imagine).

 

JarethscowlingWho is this ‘Julian’?

Julian, it transpires, is the youngest of the Shadow Man, super powerful and mischievous god-like beings controlled by runes. He’s definitely based on David Bowie’s Jareth from the film Labyrinth. No really. At one point he flounces around a Jareth costume.

Our villain is, you guessed it, dangerously sexy with his white hair and ‘indescribable’ blue eyes. (HINT: They’re blue). He enjoys a game of dress-up, masquerading as aliens, elves, cybermen, Zach and many more.

Julian fell in love with Jenny when she was six. I KNOW. Ever since, he’s been watching her from afar and has decided that torturing Jenny and her friends is the best way to win her heart. I think a well-worded email would have worked better but I clearly don’t know shit about romance.

 

What happens?

Julian inflicts three games upon Jenny and her friends. The first (and best) is a race through a house of nightmares, the second is a chase (the middle act doesn’t work quite so well) and the third is a treasure hunt in a twisted amusement park.

It’s all connected to Jenny’s AWOL grandfather, who turns out to have been a sorcerer. The fact that Jenny has a backstory elevates her above most Point Horror girls. Having a trilogy to develop her certainly pays off.

 

Is it scary?

In places it’s certainly effective. The nightmares in the first section will work if they are also your nightmares. The scares, I think, are scarier in part 2 and 3 when Jenny started getting creepy phone calls: ‘I’m famished…‘ and the eventual reveal of The Shadow Men in The Kill. I don’t think Smith was going for Blair Witch style terror, I think where she succeeds is in invading the previously safe space of childhood games. In each book, a much loved childhood favourite is subverted into something deadly.

 

Is it any good?

Oh my, YES. It’s not possible to exaggerate the influence this trilogy has CLEARLY had on modern day YA writers. I wouldn’t be surprised if Meyer, Collins, Clare et al had been reading Smith at the same time as me. Think about it – all the tropes of modern YA are there:

  • The love triangle between Jenny, Tom and Julian (Twilight, THG).
  • A deadly game (THG).
  • Runes (Mortal Instruments).
  • A sexy villain (take your pick).

The teen speak hasn’t dated too badly and Jenny is a likeable lead. Her ambiguous feelings towards Julian only help her to be a more rounded character. It’s her feelings towards Tom that make less sense. I wish Smith had spent more time on Tom to make it a less scalene triangle.

The gang of friends become familiar, and despite some annoying bickering between Audrey and Dee, you root for them. I’m surprised more YA doesn’t exploit the ‘Unlikely Gang’ mould – I’m all for novels in which the female characters actually have mates and, in TFG, Jenny’s bond with Dee is more convincing than her one with Tom.

US coverIs it perfect?

No. I have a couple of runes to pick. The first is the worst trope to find its way into modern YA and that is the trope of the Rapey Male Lead. Julian repeatedly tricks or forces himself onto Jenny and this is written as something desirable, masculine and sexy. I’m not going to name names, but this is one of my least favourite things about some big YA franchises. The fact that Jenny does fancy Julian doesn’t excuse the fact that when she says NO, Julian still kisses or gropes her. This is a particular problem in The Hunter.

My other quibble is writing around Dee’s race. She is, I’m afraid, the ultimate in Sassy Black Girl stereotypicalness. While we should all be striving to make our books more diverse, Dee’s skin colour must be mentioned 6000 times throughout the books and she’s often compared to panthers and the like. It’s prime exotification. Worst of all, she has wise and mystical African grandmother. WELL OF COURSE SHE DOES, AFRICAN PEOPLE ARE MAGICAL. Maybe that’s picky, but I like to think we’ve come on since the 90s. In a modern version, I imagine Dee would be gay too, which would have been cool. It’s kind of subtext at present.

Finally, The Chase in every way suffers from ‘Middle of Trilogy’ syndrome – the pace sags and the brilliant fiery climax only serves to set up The Kill.

Body Count: 5 over all three books.

The Verdict

Could The Forbidden Game secretly be the NEXT BIG THING in YA? I’m honestly surprised it hasn’t been plundered by some clever film execs as this is CRYING OUT for a film adaptation. It was repackaged as a not-Point Horror by Simon & Schuster a couple of years ago to catch The Vampire Diaries fandom, but it doesn’t seem to have captured the hearts of modern YA fans in quite the way it should have, although a quick google reveals a small, but dedicated fan base.

Perhaps the book needed a bit of modernising to bring it truly into the 21st century – Audrey’s clothing could use some tweaking, but the materials are all there for a blockbuster. The games are instantly recognisable (and very compelling) and Julian, despite the rapeyness, is a hugely likeable and sexy villain. More importantly, Jenny is a relatable ‘strong female character’, she doesn’t high-kick her way through the trilogy like Dee does, but she has a quiet resolve and tenacity that I don’t think we see enough of in YA.

If you haven’t read The Forbidden Game and you’re a YA fan I would urge you to put it on your Christmas list.

The Point Horror Book Club is on hiatus until the new year, when I’ll see if anyone can still be arsed.