The Restoration Game
by Ken MacLeod
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Benjamin Wald
Pyr Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781616145255
Date: 20 September 2011 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Restoration Game is short, fast-moving spy novel, with a bit of science fiction sprinkled on for seasoning. Coming from Ken MacLeod, whose previous novels have been firmly science-fictional, this is a bit of a surprise, and led to some disappointed expectations on my part, particularly since some of the early set up suggests that SF will be more central to the story than it ends up being. Still, judged by what it does rather than what I expected it to do, the story is a reasonably entertaining spy novel, with well-executed plot twists and mysteries.
The novel is told in a first person narrative by Lucy Stone, a young woman living in Britain and working at a small video game development company who was born in the tiny formerly Soviet republic of Krassnia. Her heritage becomes important as the company she works for is approached to create a MMORPG that will serve as an online organizing site for a CIA supported revolution in Krassnia.
Lucy learns that her mother, and several men, one of whom may or may not be her father, have long histories of involvement with Krassnian politics and international espionage. She is dragged into a plot to discover the secret behind the so-called "Krassnian truth", a secret kept for centuries by the ruling class of Krassnia, rooted in legend, that is said to have terrified Stalin himself.
The intrigue and espionage elements of the novel make for an entertaining puzzle, slowly revealing pieces of the puzzle in a way that is perfectly rational in retrospect, but which I, at least, could not predict ahead of time. Lucy herself is an entertaining viewpoint character, self-assured but with enough doubts and foibles to cement her humanity and relatablity. However, I found it never entirely clear why Lucy allows herself to be dragged into an international espionage plot. Curiosity alone seems like a bit of a weak motive to cause someone to quit their job and put their life at risk out of nowhere.
The science-fictional reveal at the end was a bit of a letdown. It seemed from the set up that the ending was supposed to be a surprise, but I, and most other regular science fiction readers, had no trouble predicting the final reveal. Furthermore, the science fiction element itself ended up playing very little role in the plot; it is mostly a McGuffin. It could just as easily have been some more mundane secret, without altering much of anything in the story. This made the story as a whole feel much more like a spy story than a science fiction story.
In the end, MacLeod has told a fast-paced spy thriller, but while it is well written, there's not much new or surprising here. Science fiction fans will probably be disappointed by how peripheral the SF elements are to the story, and there's not much in this novel that stuck in my mind or left me thinking. Still, it has engaging characters and a well constructed, fast paced story, so it's a good novel to pass some time with.