Age of X/Gameboard of the Gods takes place a hundred years in the future. Religious extremists unleash a virus called Mephistopheles, taking down half the population. Infrastructures failed and crumbled, and many places descend into chaos and anarchy. This is known as The Decline.
The US & Canada unify to create a new nation called the Republic of North America (RUNA), with its capital in Vancouver. As those of mixed genetic backgrounds have a greater resistance to the virus, RUNA institutes a harsh policy where large parts of its population are forcibly swapped with those of the Eastern Alliance (EA), formed from parts of China and Russia. As the two nation-states began breeding hardier stock, the world was better able to withstand and resist the virus until a vaccine was created. Any ethnically pure bloodlines are known as Castes, and suffer greatly from hereditary genetic defects (the Mark of Cain) due to the virus.
Rebuilt from the ashes, shunning traditional religions and technologically advanced, RUNA is the major world power, its citizens known as Gemmans, taken from their new slogan "Gemma Mundi"- Jewel of the World. Protecting RUNA are the Praetorians: elite cadres of soldiers equipped with a neural implant to enhance their abilities. Servitors are members of Internal Security who license and investigate all religious groups, assessing their threat to society.
Mae Koskinen is a Praetorian, one of the best. At the funeral of her former lover, a challenge from a rival pushes her over the edge. Suddenly possessing with speed and power she's never known, Mae badly injures her fellow soldier and she's forced to take an unofficial assignment to help smooth things over. Justin March is a former Servitor, a brilliant one, exiled from RUNA for his heretical leanings. Since his exile he's been accompanied by a pair of imaginary ravens at the behest of their master, a master whose terms Justin can't quite accept. Yet he's the person his former boss- who booted him- needs to investigate a series of brutal serial murders tied to an unexplained phenomena that no one can solve. And Mae's going to help him.
The deeper Justin and Mae dig into the case, the stranger it gets, bringing many things neither wants to admit or can really explain to light. But was this the idea all along?
The premise was great- the idea of humanity turning away from the gods and their inevitable return to the world is not new, but as always, it's in the presentation. These gods are nothing if not adaptable, and the methods some of them are using to re-enter the world are what drive the story. Mead's plot takes us in several directions- multi-layered, full of sub-text, some twists and plenty of wit. Just the way I like it.
From the start I wanted to know more about the characters, especially the protagonists. Justin's situation with the ravens was clever; a great hook. Mae came off as almost a trope or stereotype, but since it was early I could wait to see what would happen. Wasn't disappointed- all the characters were distinctive, mostly well-handled and often kept things flowing with their interactions and relationships.
I really enjoyed the dialogue and subtleties woven into the story. A minor character, Tessa, transplanted from one of the provinces gets the Noble Savage treatment from the stuck up Gemmans (I kept reading it as Germans- coincidence?)
Justin's situation. After an investigation gone wrong, Justin dreamt of three mysterious beings who vied for his services, offering great rewards (just like the Golden Apple of Discord fable Mead based it upon). An attempt on his life while he slept forced him to bargain with one of them, who sent his two ravens to assist and they've never left him. Being a servitor, Justin's got a working knowledge of mythology, so how the heck doesn't he ever figure out what happened for FOUR YEARS? Not only is this his story arc it's even lamp-shaded at the end of the book when he receives a visit from his benefactor and only then does Justin finally decide to look things up. Even if you ignore the fact that he should've realized the significance of the two ravens almost immediately- it being his job and all- why does it take FOUR YEARS of whining and wondering before he finally decides to do some research... and the first entry he comes across has his answer. I don't know who got it worse: Justin or us for stretching this farce out the entire length of the book.
There's also no glossary, no maps nor any frame of reference included for what's going on in the world. Actually, the glossary and backstory are provided on Mead's website- which is fine, but should also be in the book. Especially the maps so we'd know how the world's been rearranged- provinces, land grants, etc. And because of that, there's lots of stuff that has to get tossed at us to flesh out the story. Genetics and genetic experimentation play a large part in things, but it's a bit confusing and information is doled out piecemeal in the midst of everything else going on.
Typical dystopian outline: military-based society built upon Roman principles- been there, done that. Any place outside of Europe and North America falls into decline and its people looked upon as savages and peasants- check. Germanic/Nordic epitomes of beauty and perfection- gotcha. The social division itself is a little confusing: racially pure bloodlines are genetically defective and less likely to have healthy children, if at all, yet always look down upon the rest of the world whose mixed genes allow them to thrive. I mean- I get it, but I don't get it. Plus hopefully we'll get to visit the Eastern Alliance or some other countries in the next book.
As the first of a series, Age of X/Gameboard of the Gods has a lot of potential... and a lot of room for improvement. I like what Mead's got here, I really do. A little tightening up, more backstory, a lot less outright idiocy in trying to manipulate readers and characters and we'll really be onto something.