Critique: Hall of Games by Stefanie Saw

BookReviewHallofGames

I beta read Stefanie Saw‘s latest version of Hall of Games (the Wattpad version of which is here) and have her permission to post my review/critique of it. Contains spoilers.

Hall of Games is a YA Fantasy Adventure following the story of Cadence ‘Cady’, an 18-year-old girl who makes a naive deal with a demon and results in devastation upon the household she serves and the death of her father. She spends the book attempting to atone for her crimes and learning to grasp her new-found, forbidden power.

The story starts with Cady doing manual labour as a servant girl of a grand house, unhappy with her circumstances and envious of the young lady she serves, Khazaria, who abuses Cady and is every bit a detestable, spoiled princess. I liked Cady at this first introduction: headstrong but biding her time and showing her aspirations to break out from the status quo in such sympathy-inducing situations. As time progresses, however, Cady’s obsession to right her perceived wrongs took over, turning her from a naively optimistic girl into a single-faceted one, and my initial sympathy and affection for her and her unfortunate circumstances waned. I ended up liking the side characters much more than Cady herself. Almost all of them, aside from Khazaria, who plays the typical, antagonistic, superficial bitch, were better-developed and had greater depth than Cady, from the borderline bromance between Kashimi and Ales, to snarky, sassy Zoroth, to even Misha the Lekhobarian girl who we see fleetingly when Cady first arrives at the Halls. They all came to life before my eyes with their various quirks, manners of speaking, and behaved convincingly within their individual roles — which was why, when Ales is killed, I grieved a little, and when Zoroth is grievously injured, I hoped against hope he wouldn’t also die.

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I would have liked to actually root for Cady or liked aspects of her in the same way I liked the side cast. Although I sympathise with her plight, her guilt, and her protectiveness over her brother, I can’t empathise with her, nor do I care much whether she succeeds or fails after she volunteered to join the army. I would have liked to get beneath her skin more, feel and share her motivation, see more facets of her personality — currently wholly dominated by her obsession with repentance — and feel for her. As it stands, as the story is so plot-driven, I continued to read with bated breath because I want to see how the world unfolds and what awaits Cady, rather than see how Cady succeeds — replace her with any other character and I would still feel the same. Even though she is portrayed as an anti-hero, anti-heroes should also have their own likeable (not necessarily positive) aspects — e.g. Light Yagami’s righteousness and manipulativeness; Lelouch Lamperouge’s vengeance and clever military tactics; Dexter Morgan’s sense of justice and in-depth knowledge of people’s emotions.

As it stands, Cady is solely defined by her single wish to repent for her crimes and its repetition over the course of the book becomes tedious and irritating, to the point where it wears at the little support I felt for her from the beginning. She is very much a reactive rather than an active character, one who only becomes motivated after events occur, rather than taking initiatives of her own, and then every reaction tends to screw things up even further — whilst within character, it doesn’t earn any likeable brownie points in my eyes. When she doesn’t bemoan setting free the Polong and the subsequent events, she laments over Cole, who I feel needs more fleshing. He seems to exist for the pure purpose of being Cady’s emotional baggage, with little development of his own, even at the very last moment when he comes to her aid after her capture.

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Cady reminds me a bit of Jon Snow (from the TV version of GoT/ASOIAF) who has very rigid goals and morals, but whose actions screw everyone over, repeatedly, from bad to worse as if she were the embodiment of Murphy’s law itself. This actually makes the story all the more addictive and fascinating, knowing Cady’s next actions will (inevitably, unintentionally) worsen her situation and thus the plot progresses — for the plot must progress, rather than because Cady wishes it so — and land her in the hospital for the fifth time. I’d suggest perhaps toning down Cady’s yoyoing through Kashimi’s hospital. I get it — Cady is accident- and trouble-prone, but the amount of fainting, head injuries, body injuries etc. she’s had ending up on a hospital bed has gone from a running gag to predictable, almost like a video game character failing against a boss and respawning at their save point, the bed.

Having said all of the above, one of the story’s greatest points is it’s very plot-driven. Although I continued not for Cady, I continued nevertheless, thirsting for the next part knowing all the things that could have gone wrong have gone wrong. The writer has drowned the story in Murphy’s law and I loved it. Every plan, every expectation of the characters all seem good in theory, and the writer has no qualms about turning it all on their heads: Khazaria is perceived dead after the Orelik mansion event, but she turns up at the Varya training, vengeful of Cady’s actions; Cady goes to House Khavarosk for what was meant to be a small, well-deserved break before onward journey, only to bump into and be hunted Taras at the celebrations; Cady is rescued after relentless torture and they seem to be succeeding in the escape, only to be discovered.

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I would have liked more wonderment in being immersed in the world. The story sucked me into Cady’s world and I saw everything through her eyes, from the gleaming celestium structures to the uniforms to the mystical creatures, but there lacked a sense of amazement. Cady was not a well-travelled girl and, until the hunt for the Walkers began, hadn’t really gone through much hardship, so at some points during her mourning for her father and being terrified of being discovered as a Walker, I would have liked to see moments when Cady actually felt positive about the beauty of the world. There was a hint of it as she passed the great wall at the beginning of the story when she envisioned moving north and seeing all the different grand buildings. Again, I blame this on Cady’s single-faceted obsession with undoing her wrongs, meaning the reader has little chance to actually appreciate the vast world the writer has created, as hinted by the depth of the cultures woven behind the scenes we see fleetingly as Cady adjusts as a Murka in the Halls, which is a great shame.

Just before halfway through the book, Cady learns of her hidden Affinity. Her motivation has pushed the plot so far with no apparent hindrance or antagonists, save for Khazaria’s fleeting appearances. The group with whom Cady had befriended — Feathers, Mara, Misha, etc. — were never to be seen again. Through them, Cady learnt her role as a Murka within the army and they emphasise the socioeconomic inequality between those of noble blood and commoners, and it was reinforced repeatedly by both parties Cady did not belong, for she wasn’t of noble blood and therefore a ‘false’ Varya and yet she had an Affinity despite being a commoner and therefore a ‘pretender’. All this reflects the state of the world today in inequality and discrimination, a theme with which the readers could empathise. There were opportunities for either Cady to redeem herself in the commoners’ eyes by being some kind of aid or ally or for the commoners to come to their senses regarding which was the priority, their perpetuation of the inequality and maintaining the status quo or the Walker Hunters threatening Cady’s existence. As it stands, we never see those Murka again and this makes me think their sole purpose was to allow the plot to progress, for Cady to sneak out and meet Taras — the antagonist we finally meet after half the book, and finally Cady has something at stake with a ticking clock: her life. From that point onwards, the story snowballs down in a torrent of breathtaking action and betrayal. The action sequences took my breath away. When Taras’s men chased Cady from the Khavarosk’s mansion, I couldn’t take my eyes off the page. Every arrow whistling past, every thump of feet striking the ground had me tensing, waiting for the moment the writer dumps another Murphy’s law on my head.

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There are some characters I feel unnecessary and may benefit from being merged into one of the pre-existing characters, such as Nabiha the Lekhobarian girl (who would have been awesome as a Marietta Edgecombe after claiming to be broken by her captors — but ended up being another device to advance the plot) and Ivan the healing boy. The sadistic side of me would have liked to see Taras torturing Cady with Affinities, rather than with manual equipment, to show us how magic in this world can be used as well as abused. I would have also liked to see other affinities in action, rather than just referred and glossed over quickly. We briefly see Khazaria sparring with her affinity, a Tinker when Cady first arrives at the Halls, a Runecastor making clothes, and Ales showcasing his, but none of those was particularly memorable aside from Cady’s shadow-manipulation. I suggest perhaps showcasing perhaps one or two more Affinities in depth, where relevant to the plot, rather than breezing through all of them at separate, disconnected events.

About 90% of the way through the story, the plot twists and revelations reached a peak. Cady’s passenger turns out to be a long-sealed Big Bad and Zoroth is about to be killed until Cady links with him. It was one hurdle after another, and, yet again, the writer does the action sequences and plot progression so well. I couldn’t stop reading. Taras is finally killed and all could be well — then Cady decides to Jon Snow it all by dragging Cole back from the dead.

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I would like to see the repercussions from Cole being resurrected. I’m told by the author the repercussion is Cole is immortal, however, that seems to be a personal, subjective repercussion — that a guy with a good heart and morals is forced to live bereft and alone — and this could easily be an invulnerability in the hands of those who are not in Cole’s shoes. I compare this with the resurrection stone in Harry Potter: for everyone that uses it, the resurrected life-forms are not quite alive for everyone using it, to the point where users will never be satisfied and will eventually commit suicide to achieve what they could not have whilst alive. As it stands, immortality seems to be a great reward for, rather than a repercussion of, what Cady has sacrificed to break the rules of nature, and is only a negative specifically for Cole and nobody else. This also makes me wonder why immortality has not already been achieved by any Big Bads in the past, especially back when there were more Walkers roaming the earth, working with the in-world magical law that, for each Walker, three dead people could be revived and awarded immortality with no repercussion for the revived whatsoever.

Some smaller points I wish to make:

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Ales’s age was never made clear in the book until quite late and so the relationship between him and Cady was tilting in and out of potential romance and teacher-student platonic, never clear where the line was drawn. Personally, I would have liked it clearer, being not a fan of romance, but I can see where the possibility can be enticing for others. As a result of the above, when he finally said to her “You’re like my daughter” after chapters of teasing and “I won’t leave you alone again”, the revelation startled me.

There are too many specialist words used that aren’t necessary in my view: ‘Dewas’ for gods, ‘kheliruan’ for dyslexia; they don’t actually contribute to the world, and one can almost argue the words were exotic for exoticness’s sake. In that same vein, there is an overuse of ‘K’ names in this world: Kazimir, Kashimi, Khavarosk, Khazaria, kheliruan, Kastimir, kesatria — with almost all of them having similar sounds and syllables, it impeded the flow of the reading as their meanings all blended into one.

The overall literature aspect of the story is good. A few run-on sentences, a few misuse of idioms, but nothing a sharp eye won’t tidy up, and certainly not enough to jar me out of the story. All of the characters, bar Cady and Cole, were easy to sympathise with, realistic, well-developed, and made me care about their outcome. In that sense, Cady and Cole are too one-dimensional and need further development and fleshing out, especially as they are the main characters in the series.  Each chapter pushes the plot forward, making it difficult as a reader to actually stop (which is a major win for the writer) because everything seems to go from bad to worse for the characters — and this can be even more heart-wrenching and addictive if I could like (aspects of) the main characters or their aspirations. It’s evident the amount of development the world and its culture has undergone and I would have liked to see more of it, less hindered by Cady’s blind obsession. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and reviewing this book, and I look forward to seeing more of this writer’s works.

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Have you read Hall of Games? What are your favourite bits?

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