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The Restoration Game by Ken Macleod

1/09/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy The Restoration Game in the USA - or Buy The Restoration Game in the UK

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pub: Orbit. 303 page hardback. Price: 18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-647-4.

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'The Restoration Game' is Ken MacLeod's twelfth novel. Until a couple of books ago, he could be characterised as a Scottish writer of political space operas. However, with 2007's 'The Execution Channel', MacLeod lost the spaceships and moved into near-future Science Fiction instead. 'The Restoration Game' is the third book in this sub-genre, following on from the BSFA Award-winning 'The Night Sessions', a novel which made my top ten list for 2009.

The story is set in 2008 and revolves around Lucy Stone, who works for a start-up computer games company in Edinburgh. She has a complicated past, having been brought up in Krassnia, a small satellite of the former Soviet Union by her mother, an anthropologist and occasional CIA agent. When her mother rings up out of the blue and asks her to produce a Krassnian version of her company's latest on-line role-playing game, Lucy immediately smells a rat. However, though she wonders why the CIA is suddenly interested in Krassnia, her company needs the money so she agrees to the deal.

As Lucy researches the history of Krassnia for the game, she finds out two things. First, her family has much older links to Krassnia than she thought. In the 1930s, her great-grandmother had an affair with a member of the Vrai, Krassnia's elite tribe. The product was Lucy's grandmother. So Lucy is part-Vrai herself. Second, she realises that the sword and sorcery ideas she used as the basis for the game come directly out of Krassnian legends, as told to her at bedtime during her childhood and since lost to her subconscious.

While the Krassnian version of the game is being developed, Lucy's mother sends a CIA colleague to watch out for her. He explains that the CIA is trying to foment a popular revolution in Krassnia. They want the game to provide a safe place in cyberspace where opponents of the Krassnian government can meet and organise out of sight of the security forces. Being the CIA, though, the revolution isn't just about letting a thousand flowers of democracy bloom.

Hidden in the mountains outside the capital of Krassnia, there is something called 'the secret of the Vrai', which has been protected from exposure for hundreds of years. Rumour has it that the secret is extra-terrestrial in origin. However, only those with Vrai blood can go near it, anyone else who tries dies horribly. Stalin almost got it in 1952 and he died a few months later. The CIA have wanted to find out what it is ever since. Their plan is to sneak in after the revolution and steal it while no one's looking.

However, when Russia invades neighbouring Georgia a few weeks later, the CIA's plans go rather pear-shaped. With Russian troops massing on the Krassnian border, there won't be any revolution. So plan B involves persuading Lucy, as someone with the requisite Vrai blood, who is not known to the security forces to go to Krassnia in person and find out what the secret of the Vrai actually is before the Russians do.

Overnight, Lucy finds herself transformed from game programmer to actual spy. However, when she comes face-to-face with the secret of the Vrai, it turns out not only to be truly alien but also to challenge everything she knows about the so-called real world.

I enjoyed 'The Restoration Game' a great deal. MacLeod tells the story in a very direct way making this a real page-turner. There's also a dry sense of humour running throughout the book to balance the occasionally heavy slabs of politics and history. MacLeod draws his characters well and paints the world of computer geeks and the invented country of Krassnia with great realism.

I have two criticisms of the book. First, MacLeod could have made more of the central SF premise, the so-called secret of the Vrai. This is a bit of a sideshow to the main narrative about Krassnian politics and I would have liked MacLeod to explore the idea in more detail. Second, there are several rather long info dumps dotted throughout the text. Though full of relevant and interesting detail, they slow the pace of the narrative significantly at times. Those criticisms aside, 'The Restoration Game' is a hugely enjoyable novel, featuring engaging characters, an intriguing plot and setting and great writing throughout. I thoroughly recommend it.

Patrick Mahon

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