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The Game of Love and Death

gameloveThe Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough
Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, April 2015
Reviewed from an ARC

Last week, I spent my time talking about unusual formats. This week, I’m not dealing with an unsual format — just straight up prose here, folks — but this title does have a unique feel. It’s like a fairy tale — it feels like a fairy tale, and uses some elements of a fairy tale — but it’s heavier than a fairy tale because it’s also an emotional/philosophical examination of what it means to be human, of what it means to love, to choose to love even though we will also, always, every time, lose. It’s really a beautiful read. Game has 4 stars and some buzz as well (there were people talking about it here last January).

All of which is great stuff to consider, and makes me think this one could have a shot in awards season. Additionally, this particular title is a mix of romance, magical realism, and historical fiction. Medals often reward the genre-mixing titles, and that combination might just be strong enough to take this all the way. However, I’m not without my quibbles, and RealCommittee might share them.

RealCommittee has a lot they could potentially be raving about: strong writing, strong characterization, strong setting. Brockenbrough does a fabulous job of writing, especially about music, of conveying sweet and sad melody that ties perfectly to her themes: “This was something unsettling here, something unpredictable, as if some set of rules, both written and unwritten, was being shattered like glass. The awareness of it dampened his forehead and made his blood sing, raising all the tiny hairs on his arms and the back of his neck.” There’s specificity in her descriptions, but also lushness and physicality. Another quote about music: “The tune had a meaty bass part for Henry, a sort of slow, sad, wistful walk up the strings that reminded Love of his favorite part of summer when the heat of the day broke and the light turned a soft purple, and the world was womb-warm and just as safe.”

The characters are well defined, and they’re carefully paired off. The pairs mirror and echo each other as individuals, but also reflect the other pairings in the story. Flora and Henry have had some similar experiences, but their circumstances are so different that rather than duplicating each other, they compliment each other. And the Flora/Henry pairing plays off the Love/Death pairing, and the Jack/Ethan pairing. It’s a read that is a little dreamlike; there are big and small connections made all over the text, and it feels a little like the connections you make in a dream — connections that feel hugely significant and are somehow all full of sensory images jumbled together.

This is elegant storytelling with big ideas. The connections that shape the story are embedded into the bones of the book, really. The mix of the genres is pretty fab. The magical realism and the romance play off of each other and deepen the resonance of the book’s themes. The historical fiction provides the atmospheric setting; it feels like a background but only because there’s just the right amount of detail and world building. The historical realities of the 30’s shape the characters (particularly Flora and Ethan), but the details don’t overshadow the story or the people.

So I’ve raved a lot, but…I feel a big but lurking around here anyway. Only it’s a very half baked sort of big but. It’s more of a question than an actual criticism. Well, maybe it’s two question-criticisms. First, the magical realism shifted at the end. Or maybe it’s that the rules of the magic changed. The magical realism was more intrusive at the end. Why? And…all those big questions, that all get wrapped up by being folded together into the mix of love and pain that is life — do those moments at the end tie things up too simply? I suspect that depends greatly on the people at the table. So although I have a lot of rave-sounding words for this book, it’s one I could see going either way come January.

What about you?

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. I loved this book (I actually just book talked it this morning at a YA New Books presentation) and I think it could definitely be a contender. I was happy to see it shortlisted for the Kirkus prize as well. As you said, Sarah, the writing here is lush and literary and really worth noticing. I also liked the way the book tells readers how the story is going to end but then also plays with that notion and challenges the expected outcome.

    I didn’t mind the magic realism elements as I really read this one as a straighter kind of fantasy (something I also did with Bone Gap) so it never felt glaring when the fantastical elements came more to the forefront of the story.

    I was also really pleased with how diverse the novel was. BUT that also brings me to the biggest caveat I had as well: I wasn’t entirely comfortable with how Ethan’s character arc was handled in the story. It felt sloppy the way he disappeared at the end. It also bothered me that it happened with his character of all of them. In an otherwise masterful novel it felt very much like the author ran out of things for the character to do so she just stopped writing about him. And much as I loved the book (it’s definitely a favorite of 2015) that is an issue that continues to nag me weeks after reading it.

  2. I read Black Dove White Raven right before I read this book and there are so many similarities: black/white racial issues; airplanes; set in the 1930s. It found myself comparing them constantly. Wein’s writing is much more descriptive and her setting (Ethiopia) really came to life. The descriptions of the setting were so vague in The Game of Love and Death. It says it is set in Seattle but it is terribly hard to tell. it could be anywhere USA really.

    I liked the battle between love and death but found it irksome that they both interfered so much with humans, even sexually. that really seemed unnecessary and distracting.

    The ending seemed rushed and out of character with the rest of the book.

    Though it is not my favorite, students seem to enjoy it and it is written for teens after all. My team decided to include it on our Mock Printz list ( ) so I do hope it is in contention. (And btw- we didn’t included Black Dove White Raven. Sigh)

  3. While I do agree about the tidiness of the ending, I think the big ding for me here is characters: we know that Henry and Flora are Love & Death’s pawns, but for me they never quite became more than that. They stayed so on-the-page, that it was hard to be invested in the ultimate outcome of the Game. (Henry’s investment in music worked better than Flora’s in flying–it’s only at the very very end of the book that we see her fly at all, and I never got a sense of why she loved it aside from Bessie Coleman! Amelia Earhart!)

    Now, I think this is definitely a personal response and I suspect readers who are more prone to liking books with an emphasis on big ideas and epic scope will be more in tune with this one. But I do wonder if RealCommittee members may have the same issue I do.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      So, it’s reassuring to see another eh response. I was eager to read this because it sounded SO GOOD then ended up putting it aside unfinished because the characters felt so flat, although the concept was fantastic and I admired the prose. I found this a very promising debut but would be shocked to see it go the distance, especially given that I’m finding this year incredibly strong — and that goes double for fantasy; this is feeling like a banner year for YA genre, much of it both well executed and genuinely appealing.

  4. I loved this book when I read it this past spring and I began recommending it to student immediately. I felt the writing was very rich and a pleasure to read and I’m personally a big fan of historical fantasy. I enjoyed the characters, setting and the fantastical elements of personified Love and Death. I also appreciated the diversity–romance of any kind featuring characters other than white straight people is still disappointingly tricky to find! However, I did find the end somewhat rushed and not quite in tune with the rest of the novel. I think that, in fact, I would have preferred a more tragic ending–it might have felt more satisfying or genuine to the book’s overall story and tone. That said, this was one of my favorites of the year and I’m happy to see it getting recognition. I’m not sure if it will be a final contender for Printz but it’s a great debut and I’d love to see it on the finalists list for the Morris!

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