The Game | The Valley #1 | ISBN 9781907411656 | Atom, 2012 | 3.5 out of 5 Points
“The famous Grace College, located in a remote valley in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, is an elite school for the highly gifted. To Julia and her brother, it’s the perfect place to hide. But when Robert finds a dead body in their first week they’ll learn they can only run so far from their past. And that the valley has secrets of its own. . .”
Around the beginning of the 2010s everyone in Germany was hyping Krystyna Kuhn’s „The Valley“ series centred around students at remote and elitist Grace College in Canada. I stumbled across the series quite recently and decided to give the first instalment, “The Game”, a shot. It’s very unusual for German or for non-English speaking author’s books in general to be translated to English so there must have been something here that people thought might attract readers all over the world. I kind of understand but I also kind of don’t.
This book is unusual, that’s for sure. It was first published at the height of the YA Thriller trend in 2010 but even seven years later the novel doesn’t feel dated. There are some pop culture references but the book could’ve come out yesterday, it aged quite well which can’t be said for a lot of other YA novels from around that time.
What makes this book so unusual is it’s setting. It’s YA fiction, the heroes are all about seventeen and eighteen years old, but they’re college students, not in High School anymore and the book deals with some mature topics like heavy partying and sex that a lot of YA omits. For many older teenagers these things are part of growing up which is why I liked that they were included here and displayed as fairly normal teenage and college student behaviour without glossing over the ugly parts.
Grace College is remote in the extreme sense of the word: It’s situated in a lonely valley somewhere in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, half a day’s trip away from the next small town. The only way to get out is to take a bus that only comes on Saturdays. I loved it for being so different from your usual YA small town setting. There’s something dreadful about the place that’s apparent from page one and I kept finding myself wishing for Julia to leave immediately before something bad happens. But of course she does not leave and of course something bad happens.
The book’s main protagonist is seventeen year old London born student Julia Frost who arrives at Grace College together with her brother Robert. They’re running away from something but Julia won’t tell us what they’re hiding from. This was a bit of a bother to be honest and it’s one of the main quibbles I had with “The Game” so let’s get it out of the way. Julia is an unreliable narrator. I liked the idea of this and it could have worked extremely well if it had been executed better. Krystyna Kuhn is an okay writer. She’s great with plots but her writing is just okay. Julia is basically lying to the reader and keeps omitting important information which becomes apparent quite early on. If this had been done better it would probably have kept me guessing what she tries to hide from the reader and why but the way it played out here it got extremely frustrating after a while. That’s because as far as the reader knows Julia has no reason to lie.
She has no reason to hide her past from the reader and you keep wondering why the hell she does it other than to keep the reader invested in the story. The secret of Julia’s past is an extremely clunky plot device. It’s unnecessarily dragged out. All it would have needed to make it more believable was some kind of reason for Julia to not want to remember her past. It’s clear why she hides it from the other students at her new college but she basically hides it from herself and consequently from the reader as well. I kept asking myself why and if I had gotten an answer, a reason, this could have been pretty cool. It’s the sole reason I was disappointed in the ending because the answer to this question never was delivered.
SHE DOESN’T EVEN GO HERE
The actual plot of “The Game” makes up for that disappointment though. This book gets you invested in Julia’s story and fate really fast. And I mean really fast. Julia arrives at college and a few days later is invited to a party on the shores of Lake Mirror, the mysterious lake Julia was told to stay away from due to freak swirls and weird weather phenomena in the area. Julia and her roommates go to the party anyway, duh. Once there Robert witnesses a girl nobody has seen before dive headfirst into the water. A few days later a different girl is found dead in the water near the lake’s shore – Angela, who is wheelchair-bound and can’t have reached the rocky path she fell from alone. So someone must have killed her.
The English edition’s blurb is really vague but this is basically the plot. An unknown girl dives into Lake Mirror, but Angela is found drowned. As far as we know there is no supernatural element to the “Valley” series but the way Lake Mirror, Grace College, nearby Mount Ghost and Angela’s death are described and woven into the story, you get a feeling there’s something really weird going on at Grace College and this feeling of dread is what keeps you invested. Interestingly enough this book also delves into psychological and mathematical terrains like game theory (hence the title) and there are some chapters told from Robert’s point of view. Robert is extremely intelligent, a prodigy, who mostly thinks in mathematical equations and the small insights into the way he sees Grace College and the world were really interesting to read.
Julia sets out to find out about the mysterious girl, because nobody believes her brother has actually seen her. I liked this because it rang so true to me. Robert is different, people think he’s weird so they spread the rumour that he made the mystery girl up for attention. I loved this part of the story. Julia does doubt Robert now and then but her love for her brother is really strong and she wants to protect him at all costs. I like stories centred around siblings a lot and this was very well done. Julia uncovers some secrets but she mostly uncovers new questions. I liked that. There are enough answers given to make you feel satisfied with the novel’s ending and the new questions that arise feel natural and make you really want to know what happens next. I haven’t read book two, “The Crash”, yet but I’m already looking forward to it.
As a side note I might have to warn you that they stopped translating this series into English after book two. I think “The Game” is still worth a read if you’re interested but you might not be able to get all the answers in the end. It’s a shame, really, but I guess the books didn’t sell as well in English as they seem to have in Germany. If you’re into YA Thrillers you might still want to give “The Game” a shot. It gives you enough answers in the end to not leave you hanging even if there is a minor cliff hanger.
AS WHITE AS THE PEAK OF MOUNT GHOST
I didn’t like everything about this book, obviously. I’ve already mentioned the slightly botched take at an unreliable narrator but there’s more: I’m not really okay with the author killing off the only disabled character in the book. Angela seems to be the only student in a wheelchair or otherwise physically impaired at Grace College and she’s the murder victim. As far as representation goes, “The Game” kind of falls flat. There is one character of colour, Katie, who is the main heroine of book two but she’s the only one mentioned. I don’t always mind the lack of diversity in fiction as much as I do when it comes to “The Game”. Grace College’s students are supposed to be America’s most intelligent young people and they’re basically all white, able bodied and straight. That kind of thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If this was any old community college I wouldn’t mind as much but I don’t like the implication that America’s most intelligent teenagers apparently don’t include people of colour, disabled kids or gay people.
I also thought it was a shame that Krystyna Kuhn chose Debbie, Julia’s roommate who is seriously a horrible person, as the only chubby girl in the book who is also constantly described as plain and not as pretty as the others. This bothered me quite a bit since it plays into old stereotypes of equating physical attractiveness with goodness. Debbie is a horrible person but at least I still found her somewhat realistic in her horribleness. I don’t want to spoil anything but in the end I even felt sorry for her even though she is a homophobic, racist mess of a character. I liked however that her behaviour wasn’t condoned by the other characters and Julia actively dislikes Debbie and doesn’t take shit from her at all. Neither does Katie, who is Asian. Katie was my favourite character but I also liked Julia and Robert quite a lot as well as Julia’s other friends. I don’t really mind Debbie being there since she’s basically the archetype of the preppy elitist racist snob you would expect at a school like Grace College, I’m just not really cool with her horribleness reflecting in her looks as well. That’s just weirdly shallow for a book that actively does not condone Debbie’s shallow behaviour.
The other character I could not stand was Chris and of course he’s Julia’s love interest. This book was first published in 2010 at the height of the Twilight hype and I guess we need to keep that in mind when regarding Chris’s arsehole behaviour. He’s a dick, sorry for my French there. He doesn’t respect Julia’s boundaries at all, he keeps nagging her, he’s mean to her basically all the time. He gets angry when he doesn’t get his way but Julia falls for him anyway. There’s no chemistry there, it practically happens over night which is a crying shame because Krystyna Kuhn actually knows how to write teenagers in love. In the beginning of the book Julia is still trying to get over her ex-boyfriend Kristian. She remembers him sometimes and that worked really well. Her love for Kristian and her sadness over having to leave him behind were believable. Her crush on Chris wasn’t. Not at all. Also, what is it with all the people named Chris, Krystyna?
EVERYBODY’S DARLING AND MR. FLORIDA
My last point of criticism is the writing. As I’ve stated above it isn’t bad. It’s okay. It can be quite repetitive though and especially towards the end of the book it kept getting too much. The author keeps referring to Katie as “the Korean” which got me rolling my eyes. A lot. We are told she’s Asian right in the beginning, why does Kuhn keep mentioning it? Likewise Alex, a friend of Julia’s, is referred to as Mr. Florida about a hundred times. Julia herself is Everybody’s Darling and then there’s a guy named David, who isn’t even that important, but every time he has page time, he’s called Good Guy. It was funny once, it got on my nerves when it happened for the tenth time.
“The Game” was a worthwhile read all in all. I do understand the hype but somehow I also don’t. The book grabs you and pulls you under like the freak currents of Lake Mirror. It’s incredibly atmospheric, the mystery plot works very well and keeps you guessing until the last page. The characters are mostly interesting and likable, the murder mystery is well done and Kuhn knows how to get the reader invested in the secrets of Grace College. But, and this is a big BUT, the novel is seriously flawed. The writing is okay but sometimes clunky and Julia doesn’t work as an unreliable narrator, which is unfortunate since the book depends on it. In the end “The Game” is an unusual YA thriller, quiete an entertaining read, but it lacks the something more it could have easily had with a bit more work. If you like YA thriller literature and don’t mind that the series’ last two books were never published in English, be sure to grab it. There are some cliff hangers but it does work as a stand-alone. I’ll get back to you about book two as soon as I’ve read it.
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