In Earth’s battle-ridden future, humans have evolved. Those with extraordinary skills rise to power and fame. Those without live in poverty.
Sixteen-year-old Willow Kent believed she was normal. But when a genetically-advanced military officer shows up in her village and questions her identity, long-buried secrets begin to emerge. With remarkable skills and a shocking genetic code the Core and its enemies will do anything to obtain, Willow suddenly finds the freedom she craves slipping through her fingers. Greed, corruption, and genetic tampering threaten every aspect of her existence as she’s thrust, unwilling, into the sophisticated culture of the elite Core city. To ensure peace, she must leave the past behind, marry a man she’s never met, and submit to the authority of a relentless officer with a hidden agenda of his own.
Her life has become a dangerous game. How much will she sacrifice in order to win?
I received a copy from Patchwork Press – Cooperative via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
One of my favourite books of this year, Gambit is very different to the sort of book that I like to read. Although I may regard the emergent ‘romance-dystopia’ genre with cynical apprehension, Gambit is a fine example of a book that pulls ‘romance-dystopia’ off. With C.L. Denault’s excellent writing, this book is an exemplary balance between the two genres. With books of its ilk often forsaking its dystopian elements in favour of the romance, readers will be pleased to know that the romance in Gambit does not hinder the momentum of the plot and the characters’ developments; in fact, it made it better.
The success of Gambit as a romance-dystopian is largely attributed to its narrative; it is centred entirely on Willow’s character development, and it never strays from this direction. Willow’s growth as an individual is what propels the plot, themes, worldbuilding, or the essence of the book forward. Her journey is one that is shared with the reader; as Willow learns about the Core, her condition, and the people around her, the more the reader does also. Exposition is kept to a bare minimum, and the worldbuilding is thus a process of learning and discovering the world in Gambit and its condition. As we are thrust into a tumultuous time of Willow’s life, Denault leaves small clues hidden in the nooks and crannies of the dialogue and storytelling that gradually paint a subtle and surprisingly intricate world.
Often dystopia novels explore themes of oppressor versus oppressed with a strong emphasis on power and economic disparities between two classes to highlight the plight of the oppressed, and how individuals of lower echelons may harbour clear resentment towards the hegemonic group. Some young adult dystopian novels may offer a vivid picture of two classes, easily differentiated by their haves and have not’s. The class struggle that inevitably ensues often become a focal motif of the narrative. Whilst these elements are certainly implied in Gambit, with the Core’s calculating society and the hard but honest life in the village, its discourse is much more subtle. In Gambit, dystopia is approached quite differently, and the differences are captivating.
Denault transports us to a time where genetics is the currency of the future. Though this is not a far cry from many other imagined dystopias, rather than seeing how subjection affects an entire group of peoples, the focus lies on how it affects Willow; how she is cautious around men in the tavern because of the lack of security, how she experiences offhand classism, how her life in the village has shaped her language and understanding of the things around her, and even her consciousness of the Core’s power. As much as I love reading dystopians with overt themes, it was refreshing to read a dystopian that still offered socio-political commentary but through the lens of a young girl. Rather than being an analysis of something systemic and societal, Gambit is an exploration of the individual and her lived experiences.
The pleasure of Gambit is that Willow is a fantastic protagonist and heroine. Some months ago I talked a great deal about ‘strong female characters’ so I am pleased to say that Willow is not a shallow female character with cookie-cutter characteristics. Willow may be determined, good at heart, and able to fight (and with good reason!), but she is also vulnerable, hot-headed (and not superficially so), and sometimes naive. There are times where she toughs out the bad, but also times where longing for her family gets the best of her. She throws tantrums, she cries, she is defiant, and has moments of immaturity (though it is never annoying). Simply put, Willow is a complex, multifaceted teenage girl, and that fact is never lost in the narrative. Denault understands teenagers and her portrayal of Willow is consistent, realistic, and positively earnest.
There is, of course, the romance – an aspect of the novel in which I hold many thoughts and also reservations. The dynamic between Willow and the romantic interest is certainly complex with a volatile nature, which makes the story and its effects on Willow gripping and addictive. The relationship oscillates between affectionate and morally questionable. There are moments when he is manipulative and times where he is fighting for her trust – and yet, what keeps me from dismissing this altogether is that it is written with absolute self-awareness. Willow never permits the romantic interest’s contentious behaviour, and in extension the actions itself are thus not glorified. On the contrary, she calls him out on it and continuously questions his character and agenda. (And the romantic interest is hiding something, a deep and terrible secret, and I need to know what it is.)
More so, their different births, upbringing and therefore worldviews create a palpable friction that is compelling and intense. Is Willow’s attraction towards him naivete or infatuation? Whilst I cannot deny that there is an attraction between the two characters – though its nature is yet to be revealed – this was an element in the book that has kept me guessing throughout. After all, Willow is young, only sixteen years old. Gambit calls us to ask ourselves truly and honestly: how would our sixteen year old selves handle such a tumultuous journey ingrained with vicious political conflict of another world that is beyond our comprehension and understanding? (For most of us, probably not very well at all. And try as she might, that’s the case for Willow too.)
Gambit is an excellent and solid start to, what I expect will be, a fantastic and exciting trilogy. There’s mystery, political intrigue, and a great deal of hidden agendas – enough to satisfy and just enough to arouse your curiousity without being deceptively vague. With the story now in momentum, what we learn in Gambit is just the tip of the iceberg; I have a feeling that there is more to see and more to come. At its heart, Gambit took all the elements of young adult dystopia that I despise, and proved to me that it is very possible to have a well-written and thoughtful romance-dystopian. I was wrong. Denault, you have humbled me.
If there’s one thing I’d like for you to take away from my review, it is that I enjoyed reading Gambit, a lot. Sometimes there are books that are meant to change your perspective, or maybe they are meant to awaken a consciousness of today’s injustices. But sometimes, with books like Gambit, it is as pure and simple as being whisked away on a whirlwind, exciting adventure. Throughout my teenage years, I daydreamed about these incredible fantasy worlds with my own characters and stories – three years ago that imagination faded away, replaced by plans and fears for my future. Gambit, however, rekindled my imagination. I have started dreaming again.
On that note, GIMME BOOK TWO.
Book Name: Gambit
Book Series: The Prodigy Chronicles #1
Author: C.L. Denault
Publisher: REUTS Publication, LLC