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.

12 thoughts on “PHBC: The Forbidden Game by LJ Smith

  • November 13, 2013 at 8:10 pm
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    I didn’t read this for the book club because I had actually read it in the past year for the first time. It completely passed me by when it was originally out, I was probably put off by the fact it wasn’t out and out horror and I was devouring the Point Horror and Fear Street books at the time. I absolutely loved it and found it really refreshing, I do think you have hit the nail on the head that LJ Smith was obviously way ahead of the times when she wrote it and it is definitely crying out for a film adaptation, maybe not right now though as I feel people are tiring of YA books being made into films, maybe wait 5 years and then bring this out and it could be the next big thing.
    I love that cover you have posted of it, I had never seen it before because the one I read was the bind-up that came out in the height of The vampire Diaries mania.

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  • November 13, 2013 at 8:46 pm
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    Same here Caroline! I remember being put off by it not being out and out point horror so I never bothered with it. Stupid past me.

    Anyway. I really enjoyed it, way more than I was expecting. Some parts of it I thought were actually quite beautifully written, although I admit to also snickering at the unintentional smut with lines like “Jenny felt the knob in her hand”…yes, I know, I’m very childish.

    Jenny I thought was quite a refreshing change from a lot of YA heroines of the time. She began as a besotted girlfriend but she has a fantastic character arc, and her ambiguous feelings towards Julian did help her become a more rounded character. I also liked the way her relationship with Tom changed (seriously, just how unhealthy was their relationship? He told her what to wear?! Please) so that she formed her own identity apart from his and could recognise his flaws, while he learned to appreciate her. I agree it’s a shame more time wasn’t spent on Tom, though. To be frank I spent a lot of the time wondering what the hell she saw in him. He sounded unbearably smug, superior and controlling in the first book, creepily possessive and stalkery in the second book, and then wasn’t really being around much at all in the third. I think I’d have actually preferred it if Jenny had realised she didn’t want either him or Julian after saving them.

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  • November 13, 2013 at 9:00 pm
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    YES YES YES. The book would have got all the treats if Jenny had been like FUCK Y’ALL, I’m off to work with children and flowers and be single for a while. I can’t possibly imagine she stayed with Tom for long after the book finished.

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  • November 13, 2013 at 10:05 pm
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    To be fair though, that is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Like you say, the love triangle is a ubiquitous YA trope, and I’m ok with that (I’m soppy and I like a bit of lurve) but just for once I’d love if it was acknowledged that there IS a third choice; heroine doesn’t have to pick Boy A or Boy B, she can also choose neither. I do think it would have been particularly powerful in The Forbidden Game though, since it ends with Jenny rescuing Tom and redeeming Julian and it’d be cool to show she could do all that without then having one of them end up with her like some she’s some kind of reward. And totally can’t imagine her staying with Tom afterwards either. She’s a different person. It’d be like trying to date the partner you had at 15, only you’re now 25 and they’re still 15. Weird, and kind of icky.

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  • November 14, 2013 at 1:17 pm
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    Hey y’all.

    Let me begin by saying what a joy it is to have the Point Horror Book Club back, especially with three of my most fondly-remembered entries in the series. Woo, and indeed hoo.

    The Forbidden Game was always a cut above average PH fare, and rereading them nearly 20 years on I was still impressed, even if ‘beak-nosed’ potential serial killer Zach was way more irritating than I remembered (The fact that I disliked Tom, on the other hand, came as no surprise. I never had any time for Tom. Tom is a massive turd in the punchbowl. Stupid Tom).

    The Hunter is certainly the most vivid of the trilogy, and I agree, it’s crying out for screen adaptation, but this time round I fell head over heels in love with The Kill, in which LJ Smith cranks the histrionics up to eleven, and the trials and scares come faster than Julian’s costume changes. Smith even wisely ditches her two least likeable characters for much of the duration, focusing instead on Jenny, Dee, Audrey and lovely, lovely Michael. Oh, Michael. Michael is the bumbling, chubby heart of the series, and his relationship with Audrey is a delight. Michael is funny and adorable. Yes, I quite fancy Michael (which, you guys, is NOTHING compared to Julian’s thing for six year old Jennny. Also, the weird incesty cousin bit).

    No, it’s not perfect. The reappearance of Summer in the final act always felt like a bit of a copout (and what is Summer’s deal anyway? You know… *mentally*?), and I could have done without the constant clunky reminders of Dee’s ethnicity and Audrey’s godforsaken spiky eyelashes (???), but overall, it just works. And a browse on the LJ Smith official website suggests she’s considering a fourth book in the series, tentatively titled Rematch. Watch this space, I guess…

    If there’s a weak link in the trilogy it’s The Chase, which is audaciously slow-paced, but serves, I suppose, to ratchet up the tension for the all-out nut-jobbery of The Kill. Certainly, there’s too much Tom in The Chase. Bloody Tom. Man, I can’t stand that guy.

    Special mention for the brilliant original UK Point Horror edition cover artwork, because seriously what in the name of holy hell is going on with that Collector’s Edition? Is that supposed to be Jenny in the middle? Why is she a middle-aged man in a wig? Why does she have a miniature pirate in her hair? At what point did a clown in a top hat feature in the books? I am baffled that this even exists.

    I’ve never, to my knowledge, read anything else by LJ Smith, but I treasure The Forbidden Game trilogy, right down to the fact that my copy of The Hunter smells of CKOne, the result of an accident in the school bag of a friend with very period-specific tastes in fragrance. But I digress; what other LJ recommendations do people have? Is The Vampire Diaries the best place to start (I haven’t seen the tv version)?

    Finally, what is this talk of a PH Book Club hiatus? Don’t make me Annie Wilkes you into continuing this fine institution, Dawson.

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  • November 14, 2013 at 1:24 pm
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    I’ve only finished The Hunter, but read the whole trilogy when I was younger so not avoiding spoilers. This was one of my favourites of the series, and YES – it desperately needs to be made into a film! It’s YA meets Labyrinth and Jumanji. In fact, it might even make a better TV Series. I’m sure the CW would love this kind of thing, they’re all about rebooting and finding old properties to adapt at the moment, plus the relationship with LJ Smith is there. The nightmares from The Hunter might need re-working though: loved the creepy elves but the alien probing was yawwwwwn. Looking forward to catching up with the last two segments.

    And noooo don’t stop the club! You haven’t even done any Sinclair Smith yet! Dream Date or Amnesia, anyone?

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  • November 16, 2013 at 9:36 pm
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    I think we should also mention Dee’s ‘sloe eyes’ which are quite famous by the end of the trilogy. And Paul, I’m glad someone other than me brought up Summer’s…issues.

    OMG, imagine if there was a rematch. I would WEEP.

    The Vampire Diaries are very similar to TFG, but worth a read. The TV show is actually good too – it’s written by Kevin ‘Scream’ Williamson.

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  • November 17, 2013 at 9:09 am
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    Oh, those damn sloe eyes, which I perpetually misread as SLOW eyes… Gimme a break, LJ.

    Righto, I shall hunt out a copy of The Vampire Diaries – book and tv versions. (Kevin Williamson = My all-time favourite Kevin.)

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  • December 13, 2013 at 4:25 am
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    Definitely bring it off hiatus in 2014, pleeeeaseee! I will be a loyal reader 🙂

    Also, I never read (pretty sure never heard of) these books. But now I want to hunt them down!

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  • December 28, 2013 at 2:55 pm
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    Wow! Just came across this website when reminiscing over childhood books with the hubby! Going to try and find all my copies (hoping my son may read and enjoy as much as I did!). I’m sure April fools and fatal secret were my favourites. My first ever point horror was the waitress!!! Does anyone remember these?

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  • February 1, 2014 at 10:22 pm
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    Just found this. I LOVE Point Horror! Please continue the book club!

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  • August 6, 2014 at 12:14 am
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    The Forbidden Game books (and LJ Smith) were my YA self’s FAVORITE. I’m 99% sure I never read the middle book (though I still have all 3) because it clearly was a place holder in the series and who had time for that, I had to get to the end! I would love to see a sequel. I just found your book club and plan to read along in the future. Here’s to reliving the YA fiction of our youth!

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