I have so many thoughts and not enough time to process them all. Please send help.
I read these books in July of 2019, and am posting these reviews months later (in my down month of September). I don’t think my initial reaction on them has changed as much.
Customary warning: This is a reminder that these are my personal opinions. My thoughts and feelings are not your thoughts and feelings. I may not always be the target audience for a book; sometimes I am. If I do not like a book, that doesn’t mean you’ll dislike it. If I love a book or simply like a book, you may hate it. Take everything I say with this knowledge. If it sounds interesting to you despite what I’ve said, then go ahead and read it. You’ll only know you like something if you read it yourself.
That being said… Spoilers Ahead
All For the Game by Nora Sakavic
The Foxhole Court – 4/5
The Raven King – 5/5
The King’s Men – 5/5
What I Liked:
Neil; Neil is such a complicated person, having been raised on the run. He was abused by his father to the point of a scarred body and even his mother beat him when he was growing up on the run with her. He has every reason in the world not to trust anyone, and somehow he still manages to try (it takes three books but he does). His love and obsession for Exy are what drive him to take his life into his own hands. Neil is strong but he is also weak and it is his weaknesses that he works to overcome, and some of his pride that he tries to pull back.
In many ways I loved and hated him, but its because he is the narrator that I feel like I loved this so much. He is perfectly obtuse in the regards of trusting and liking others. I want to see what its like for him to be happy, but that was not this series. This series was the drama, and I’m good with that.
In terms of growth, he has a lot — learning to trust — but he is very fickle. He says he can’t do this cuz he’ll be seen, but then calls Riko and asshole on national television. I put it off as part of his Martyr flaws, that he will protect others at the risk of himself, no matter the cost, but it is fickle with how he acts.
Andrew; Over the course of it all, while I love Kevin, Andrew did become my favorite. He’s a kid the system failed. His mother put him and his brother into foster care, and took his brother out. He grew up with a twin and didn’t know it. He was sexually abused in the foster care system by more than one person, and when he finally had a chance at adoption everything changed for him. He is fiercely protective of his family and those he cares about that he would kill for them (and has killed for them). He doesn’t do well to touching, and I can not blame him. He is, and will always be, complicated. He wanted to die, because of his foster brother and life. He just always wanted to be loved.
When Andrew was juiced up on drugs, he was always forced into a state of mania, violent mania, but mania. He was always smiling, and when he was off it as if he cared for nothing. It is clear that he loves Exy, so painfully clear, but he won’t let himself care for anything because it always gets taken from him. Out of everyone, I wanted him happy and I think he may have gotten that. A family; the Foxes. Someone who loves him: Neil. Something to work for: Exy. And none of it can be taken away from him.
I do know that a lot of people comment about how the author did not do much on his medication (in terms of research), as well as how violent he is towards those he cares about. For the medication aspect, I will admit that I don’t know much about the type he was on, nor much about any antipsychotics, but I do know people who have been through hell, and are violent even if they care. I think that Andrew will change, even if we didn’t get that change in these books.
Neil x Andrew; This relationship is a slow burn, taking all three books to get through. The first is the set up. The second is the development, where they learn more about each other and the third is the cumulation. Andrew always thought Neil was hot, and Neil can’t let himself find others attractive. For Neil he was told it was a weakness that would get him killed, and Andrew, from all his abuse, will not trust anyone. When first coming off his meds Andrew calls Neil a “pipe dream” aka something he can’t have. However it is the set up in the first two books, that leads to their relationship. Neil can only ever love someone who will not get him killed, its the only type of person he will trust with himself. Andrew knows that Neil is a martyr and would rather get hurt for Andrew than to ever hurt Andrew. They aren’t perfect but they work.
In the book series we don’t get much more than a few kisses (there is a little more but not much). Most of their relationship is psychological. The moment that Neil starts to trust his back to Andrew in book 1 is the moment that it begins. In book 2, Neil saves Andrews life and fights for Andrew’s sanity (resulting in him getting tortured by Riko). When Andrew’s mind is clear he sees this, and hates Neil but also loves him. Their relationship is based on trust, that Neil can not fully give Andrew, and Andrew is trying to prove that he can have, all while not trusting Neil. It’s a game of cat and mouse until they both realize that out of everyone, they understand each other best than anyone else. Neil often gets asked how he can make Andrew do things, and in some ways its because Neil knows Andrew, in others its because Andrew has a soft spot for Neil that he tries to bury deep.
When their relationship finally came to fruition, neither pushed it further than they were willing to go. To them the comfort came from being able to trust someone, at least a little. This is the sort of slow burn that drives me. This is the sort of set up and development that when finally paid off, feels awesome. I really appreciate the consent between these two and the need for verbal consent between them.
Characters; This plot is very character driven. It is character actions colliding with character actions colliding with consequences. Each of the members of the Foxes have a very different back story, and all of them are troubled in their own way. They come from different households, different names, and different situations but they are all troubled. It’s how the individuals react to each other and the baggage they carry that drives the plot. It is for that reason that in this novel, I’d say the characters are by far the best part. All of them.
Neil and Andrew are paragraphs so I separated them. See above
Kevin; This asshole. He hides behind a thin line and veil of lies. Its easier to be crass than to have himself hurt. He fears Riko, fears him to the point of panic, and in that he can not escape until Neil shows him how. His obsession and skill are what created his cage, and are equally what released him. Kevin was my favorite to watch as he grew and changed, because his efforts weren’t always recognized by others until they were. His triumphant return with his left hand, while still injured, was everything I needed. His choice to go from number two, to the queen’s piece solidified my resolve in him. He was never second best, and he always knew he wasn’t second best, but he held himself back, until he knew that he no longer had to. He’s an asshole, but he’s my asshole.
Riko; Disastrous and Dead. I hated him the moment I met him in his cocky but inferior and obsessive glory. He is what I think of when I think petty villains, but he is a villain in his own right and his motives are so justified that its hard not to sympathize with him in a bit of a way. Then he goes and tortures Neil and that’s out the window forever. We see his evil first hand against our main character, and it is for that reason we can truly hate him. He is tragic, however, in that he is a product of a society that raised him, like all the others. He never was given a second chance, and it ended up destroying him. If that’s not a testament to a broken system, I don’t know what is.
Foxhole Court Members; Inside and outside the court, all the Foxes’ team members, and support staff are well developed and defined. Their dialogue bleeds with personality and their backstories explain a lot about their characters. You get a feeling for all of them and love all of them in their own way or form. I love Renee, as well as Nicky. Both of them remind me of some of my friends. The adults are supportive and not restrictive, looking for 2nd chances and providing a safe space to fail at it. I appreciate that a lot. There is a lot of depth to all the characters, with shades of grey coloring them from head to toe. They aren’t good people. They are people.
Brief of the Foxes:
Allison – A rich girl who picked Exy over her family’s money, and was disowned.
Matt – A boy who is a recovering drug addict.
Seth – A boy who had severe depression and drug addictions.
Renee – A girl who was placed in the foster care system, and was involved in a gang.
Aaron – The twin of Andrew. While Andrew went to foster care, Aaron was kept by their mother. It was only after Andrew came back into the picture that she started to beat him.
Dan – She worked as a stripper to make ends meet and survive through HS.
Wymack – Their coach. He’s an asshole, but he knows what its like to live in a broken home. He doesn’t harp them on their shit and lets them experiment and grow, but will fiercely protect them all, if he has to.
Abby – The teams doctor. She helps them with their injuries they get on and off the field. Kind of like the mother to them.
Betsy – Their councilor that they go to talk to and are required to speak to once a semester. She is utilized. A lot.
Other Antagonists; From Neil’s father, to the Moriyamas, the villains in this are super high stakes. They are also very evil people who are doing very evil things, and in a story where we have seen such grey people do such bad things, it makes you realize just how dark grey they are rather than black. We may not get all of their backstories but many of them have their reasons and justifications and are still so evil. Their morals aren’t good, but they have reasons, they have beliefs, there is motive to their madness — no matter how evil or twisted — even if we don’t know it exactly. I think that’s what makes such good evil. In some way evil thinks its justified, in some way they are always grey not black. Showing that, I think, this book did well.
Plot; How do you write a story about sports and not let it fall into the traditional “we will win the championship” type story? This series gave us at least one way. Is it the best way? I’m not sure. There is the whole championship aspect, and much of this story revolves around the game, but there is a lot more weight to it because of the characters. The characters drive the plot and the characters are the reason they win. They do not win in the end because of only sheer will and practice. They have faced their demons. They have survived hell and back. They deserve to win, and so they take it. They are not the best team but they are a good one. This plot is far more about the characters and their demons coming back to haunt them than it is about the sport. The sport is the catalyst and their strong hold. Its what holds them together.
Weight of the World and Stakes; This has high stakes: death. This isn’t just win or lose. Its live or die. I found this interesting at first for a story about sports. Typically they are a bit more cheery and lighthearted. This was not. This was dark. This was gritty. This had the sort of stakes that fantasy novels implement. Yes, they are playing a sport. That sport is the only thing keeping most of them alive. However, it is because of this, that I know that you do have to suspend your disbelief. Having the mafia being so intertwined with a sport is a bit weird, however I truly didn’t care. I bought into it.
Use of Characters; Often times characters can be left aside in stories about sports. Its often about one or two, or how they all came together to spite adversity. This series takes full control of its tragic characters and does not skimp out on the details. The plot uses it’s characters, its world, and its character backstories to derive so much. It helps the world and the characters feel more real. It makes the want to win all that more important. You know they are going to, this is a sports story. It’s what happens in sports stories. The difference is: you want them to — no, need them to.
Progression; I liked the logical progression of the story. Things happen because characters make decisions. Things happen because characters get better. There are mistakes and they have consequences. There are triumphs and those leave lasting impacts. Everything builds on top of each other in a way that makes sense.
Time Line; This story takes place over a year which allows for a lot to be explained and elaborated on. It gives time to the madness and time to the healing. A lot can happen in a year and this series proves it.
Ages; Thanks for this book being about college kids. Really, thank you. College kids with their problems, and responsible (or trying to be) adults. Its refreshing.
Exy; What a sport! It’s so dangerous and I need it in real life (Yes, I know it is basically not possible). I never thought I would get so invested in the rules and regulations of a fake sport. This game is dangerous. It is cold blooded. It is co-gendered. I only get this heated about Figure Skating, and that’s because I’ve been invested since I was a child. I need it. Thanks.
Themes and Concepts; For all the triggers in this series. These were three of the themes that resonated the most for me.
Consent; Between Neil and Andrew this is super important and it is for that reason that I bring it up. I don’t think I’ve seen such a book touch on it for something as simple as touching someone or kissing them. This was important to them and its important for me. I do realize that yes, Andrew is violent, and did make Neil take drugs at the beginning. I’m not excusing that. That was pretty bad, however when it comes to the intimacy which is the one thing that both of them fear and distrust above all else in the other world, the fact that consent is there is important to me.
Family; Found family, or just family in general, this book has it. What makes a family? Who should you call your family? I think that family doesn’t have to be blood and I will stand by that. I’m happy that this book touched on it and showed it.
Trust; What it means to trust someone and how trust comes about. I really liked seeing how the different characters had to learn to trust each other and really learned to trust each other.
What I Would Have Liked or Changed:
I read these online; I was too hyped up to order them and buy them. Now I have to buy them as physical copies, which I suppose is not too much of an issue. EDIT in August: I have them now, praise!
Ex Machina; In book three Neil’s uncle, Stuart, saves him from his father. How? How he got there just in time, I do not understand. What I could have understood was Neil texting the number he has had memorized and in his binder for years, to signal his uncle for help, but there is no real reason his uncle shows up. Heck, Andrew could have called it, since he had the binder. Also we don’t really get his uncle’s connection to the whole mafia mess. We know its another crime family, but why do they have dealings with the FBI, or the Moriyamas? I just want to know more about this in general, I feel. However the number thing did bother me the most. Its Chekhov’s Gun. For the emphasis on it, it needed to be used. SPEAKING OF WHICH.
The Binder; All of book one and two, Neil is so worried about this binder. However it never really has any importance to the story outside of him storing his money. It has no real consequence to it, or real use.
Also his phone; See point above.
Andrew and Character Arc; While I love Andrew, I will admit that his character growth was not the most visible. Since this story is about Neil it makes sense, however where he starts and ends is still pretty violent. (Do remember that Neil is so obtuse, that Andrew has to say he’d blow him before Neil realized Andrew liked him) From a psychological stand point, I could see him accepting that he cared about people, Neil, and that he really embraced Exy (him going to play with Kevin in book three despite refusing up until that point at all times). He also learns to let go, at least a little. He clearly is able to let go a little bit, and try to be kinder (kinda). There is growth, and it is clearly a lot more mental with his defenses up, however with how dramatic Neil’s grows, it would be nice for him to match that at least a little bit more. For as satisfied as I was with the ending, I would have liked for his arc to have been completed at least a bit more. However I do know that with his trauma him becoming a totally different person in one year is not possible, which is why I accept that most of his growth is mental. Him at least saying he liked Exy (even to take it back) would have been nice.
Why You Should Read:
When it comes down to it, this is going to be a series that I am able to read, and reread, again and again. For me, that is not a lot of books. Anything that I know, has the power to do that, I will recommend. If you are looking for the traditional sports drama, this is not your book. This is about humans, broken humans, but humans. Its a story about humans playing a game that they love, and aiming for the win. You know they will, but it’s the story that brings you there. It is a lot more drama than sport in many ways, but the sports aspect is not completely forgotten. It is there, it has rules, and it is why this plot exists. It’s the foundation and the characters and drama are the filling.
Read this or don’t read it, it’s up to you. Its self published, and not too long, but I loved every minute of it. I read it in one sitting because it pulled me to finish. I think you should, because it is a great story about trauma and overcoming how your past chains you down to aim for the future you want. Its never about ignoring what happened, its about growing past it and these characters do just that.
Also, important: Trigger warning list.
Time Taken To Read
Started at about 1pm ended at about 1am. Had a lot of other things to do in that time, and was reading online. So we’ll say this.
For everything I have wrong with this series. I loved it when I finished it, and instinct tops for this.