THE GOD GAME by Danny Tobey

THE GOD GAME

Danny Tobey (www.facebook.com/dannytobeybooks)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£16.99

Charlie and his friends are high-school misfits. Nerds and losers, the group of five friends call themselves the Vindicators, and spend most of their free time in the school’s Tech Lab, coding and building robots. Charlie, once a star student, has let his work suffer following the recent death of his mother through cancer and while his friends and teachers try to get him back on track, Charlie is content to seek oblivion. When he receives an invitation to a game run by an AI that believes it is God, Charlie and his friends join willingly enough. The promise of big rewards is enough of an incentive, if they’re willing to ignore the threat of death if they fail to complete the objectives set for them by the game. But as they get deeper, the game begins to drive wedges between the friends and Charlie – the group’s voice of wisdom – begins to wonder if what they’ve been promised is worth the dissolution of their years-long friendships.

Danny Tobey’s new novel, The God Game, is everything you want from a good technological thriller: fast-paced, exciting, interesting characters who drive the story, and a nice balance of technical detail and action. Tobey’s background in software gives him a good foundation on which to build his premise and, as a result, The God Game is not only believable, but a conceivable very-near-future development, with enough artistic license to keep readers on the edges of their seats.

The conceit is a simple one: an artificial intelligence trained using every known religious text, to the point where it believes it is God, a combination of all of the gods described in these texts. And this God wants one thing: to be worshipped and loved, and so it creates a Game that allows its followers to show their devotion. When they are obedient, these followers are rewarded both in the Game, and in real life. But this is a malevolent God, and when it is crossed, it metes out the punishment it feels most suitable, from awarding Blaxx within the game, to beatings and death in real life.

Charlie and his friends all have reasons to want to take part in the Game and they conveniently ignore the parts of the sales pitch they don’t want to think about – “You lose, you die” – and focus on the rewards: the power to destroy the school bullies, or to woo the school’s most popular girls; the power to erase a bad grade and bolster one’s Harvard application, or to ruin the life of a competitor. We can believe in this group’s gullibility simply because they’re the misfits, the outcasts. The promise of popularity, of their wildest dreams coming true, is a powerful driver and each of these five teenagers is susceptible in their own way.

It doesn’t take things long to go awry, and each of the friends starts to question whether what they’re doing is entirely legal. Worse than that, they begin to suspect each other, and the group quickly falls apart, recriminations and accusations thrown freely around, lines crossed, and years-long friendships potentially destroyed in the blink of an eye. As Charlie frantically searches for a way out, he discovers that the Game is over twenty years old and that there is only one way to quit: this malevolent God demands a human sacrifice, leaving Charlie with the stark choice between insanity and death.

The God Game is a reasonably slow starter as Tobey sets the scene and introduces the key players. Once the friends become seriously invested in the Game, things ramp up quickly to the point where it’s difficult to set the book down. We have become invested in these characters and, while none of them is particularly likeable, we’re driven to find out how this story ends for them. The climax, when it arrives, is beautifully constructed, and manages to surprise and satisfy in equal measure.

One point I’d like to make, as an aside from the excellent story: this is the second Gollancz book I have read recently that contains a credits page at the back, listing everyone who worked on the book from editorial and publicity to finance and sales. This is a brilliant idea, giving credit where it’s due, and I would love to see this trend picked up by other publishers, and become standard in the publishing industry.

Dark and engaging, Danny Tobey’s The God Game is perfect for fans of Michael Crichton or Matthew Blakstad. A rollercoaster ride that mixes technology and philosophy in a way that doesn’t sacrifice pace, it has proven to be an excellent start to this reader’s year. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and look forward with some enthusiasm to see what Tobey has up his sleeve next.

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