The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Published by Scholastic, February 27, 2018. Jacketed hardcover of 400 pages at $17.99. Intended for readers ages 12 and up, grades 7 and up.
NOTE: I was sent an advance copy to review so anything may have changed by publication.
The cover: A dark brown cover that has black roses around the edges of the illustration is entangled in gold ornamentation done to resemble leafy vines. The title is in the top center of the book in silver. Embedded in the bottom is a sword featuring a crowned skull at the top of the hilt. The author’s name is at the very bottom in silver. This cover was created by Billelis, designed by Christopher Stengel. This cover captures the fantasy of the novel without revealing any important plot points. Nicely done. Overall grade: B
The premise: From the back cover, “Kestra Dallisor has spent the last three years in exile, but that does not stop her from being drawn back into her father’s dangerous politics. He’s the right-hand man of the seemingly immortal king, Lord Endrick. With his arsenal of Ironheart soldiers and vicious condors, Endrick rules the land of Antora with a cruel and bloody fist. Her father’s position makes Kestra valuable, which a group of rebels understands all too well — and they snatch Kestra from her carriage on a journey homeward. The kidnappers plan to blackmail Kestra into finding the Olden Blade, a lost dagger they believe is the only weapon that can kill the king. But Kestra is not the obedient captive they expected. One of the rebels, Simon, struggles to fulfill his orders as Kestra attempts to foil their plans. As motives shift and secrets emerge, both Simon and Kestra will have to question what it is — and who it is — they’re fighting for.” Having read this premise after I read the book, I really appreciate that this only covers the first five chapters of the book, leaving the rest of the story to surprise the reader. This premise gives just enough of a taste for the reader without spoiling anything. Overall grade: A-
The characters: The book’s point of view goes back and forth between Kestra and Simon, as they are the two most important characters. Kestra is torn between trying to have a relationship with her father, who is up to something nefarious, and being true to herself. Not helping is that everyone in this book is trying to use her to further their own ends. She is doubtful of everyone’s motives and questions each of her own. This was a problem with the character, though she was looking out for herself, as she should, her constant second guessing of every character became numbing. Even with the big reveal at the book’s close, she still doubts the supporting cast. Simon is equally troubled, doubting everyone, including Kestra, whom he obviously pines for with her first appearance. Going back and forth between the characters is nicely done, with writer Nielsen doing it right when the reader begins to question how a character will react to a new element of the unfolding plot. Supporting characters include Trina, the young woman who accompanies Kestra and Simon and has a major reveal by the book’s end, Grey Tenger, who is the leader that launches Kestra on this journey and is absolutely sinister in every possible way, Kestra’s father, the most monstrous character of the book, and Lord Endrick, who only appears in one chapter, but lives up to the terror his name inspires. All of these characters are engaging, though I wish the suspicious natures of the leads had not been so unrelenting. Overall grade: B-
The settings: Woodcourt, Kestra’s childhood home, is the primary setting of the novel, with action occurring in the castle and in the dungeons. There are rooms with the expected hidden spaces and dungeons with secret exits, but they are described wonderfully. I especially enjoyed the library which is as grand as one would expect. Leaving the castle, the heroes go on the road, passing through beaten down villages, ultimately arriving at a gathering where an important role for an unknown character will be determined. Nielsen creates a vivid landscape in this book. Overall grade: A
The action: Most of the action is psychological: “Can this character be trusted?” is the book’s mantra. It does get tedious at times, which makes action scenes really pop when they occur. The book hits a more rapid pace when the characters leave Woodcourt, but, again, no one trusts anyone else. The book is more enjoyable when the characters work together, rather than against one another. Overall grade: B
The conclusion: The book ends with two characters reaching an understanding, ending the doubts that ran through this book. However, this is not the end, as one character leaves to begin a new adventure. I felt satisfied by the ending and wanted to know what would happen next to the characters. That’s exactly how an author should leave the reader, wanting more. Overall grade: A
The final line: An enjoyable YA fantasy, though the suspicion between characters could have been eased. The shift between point of views is strong and the conclusion leaves the reader wanting more. Worth checking out, to be sure. Overall grade: A-