“The figure in the fine gray suit materialized in the nursery and stood over the sleeping infant, inhaling the sweet, milky night air. He could have taken any form, really: a sparrow, a snowy owl, even a common housefly. Although he often traveled the world on wings, for this work he always preferred a human guise.”
Henry Bishop is a privileged young man who goes to a prep school in Depression era Seattle, plays baseball, and writes for his foster father’s newspaper, but his heart truly lies in his music. Flora Suadade had to drop out of school to take care of her grandmother, her caregiver since she lost her parents to a car crash. She sings in the jazz club she half-owns but her heart flies in the sky; she’s an aspiring aviatrix saving up money to buy a plane so she can fly around the world. He’s white, she’s black; he’s rich, she’s, well, not rich. They come from different, conflicting worlds, but they have twin souls, and that’s why they’re chosen for an ageless game played by ageless adversaries: Love and Death. Love chooses Henry, and Death chooses Flora. If Love is able to influence events to the point where Flora chooses to love Henry, against all odds, he wins; but if he loses, if the two star-crossed lovers can’t overcome the gulf that separates them, Death wins, and she claims her player, Flora, for her own.
(In other words, Flora will die, in case that wasn’t clear.)
For all that the premise sounds a bit like your standard YA paranormal-ish romance, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough is a richly situated, historic magical realist examination of race and class and the meaning of love in our finite pieces of time on this earth. Brockenbrough uses sumptuous prose to shape her characters, both the players and the pawns, and to weave their stories together until they reach a crescendo of despair. I was mildly surprised by just how dark this story got; each time I thought “this is it, it can’t get any worse for these characters,” guess what? It did! Of course, this is a YA novel, and so hope is never fully absent even when shit gets reaaalllyyy bleak.
Brockenbrough uses the events of her slowly unfolding tragedy to flesh out her characters, with Love and Death being just as fascinating in all their incarnations as the protagonists being manipulated into falling in love. I actually found the conflict between Love and Death almost more interesting than what was going on with Henry and Flora; I especially appreciated the way in which various historic events were used to illustrate just how eternal their game is, and how drained they are by being immortally limited in their powers. And, of course, there’s poor, lovely Ethan, Henry’s best friend who was actually my favorite character, and not only because he queered the story up a bit.
But wait, there’s more! Brockenbrough didn’t just make her two protagonists come from different socioeconomic classes to make them strong foils for each other and therefore unlikely lovers; through their story she’s able to subtly examine the racism of the time as well as the class-related strife that had its teeth in post-Depression society. She takes on a lot in one slim volume, and she does it well.
Despite all these strong points, I never fully connected with The Game of Love and Death. I actually couldn’t even begin to tell you why. The characters were good, the premise intriguing, the examination of social issues and the ever-nefarious idea of privilege spot-on, but when I closed the book I wasn’t in love. Maybe it’s because the Game itself was occasionally a bit perplexing; I didn’t totally understand until almost the very end just what needed to happen for Love to win. Was it like The Little Mermaid, where they had to french before the sun set on the third day? Did they have to get married? Did PENETRATION need to happen? This wasn’t clear until the last twenty or so pages, which I think was a bit too late.
Despite all that, this is a great book I’d feel confident in recommending, and it will stay on my bookshelf instead of ending up in a Little Free Library somewhere and no, that’s not just because Martha Brockenbrough signed it and drew little silver hearts on the title page.