Author: C.L. Denault
Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance
In a society set in futuristic London exist two kinds of people: those with extraordinary, practically superhuman abilities and those without. The former are referred to as prodigies and are capable of rising to positions of fame, wealth and power, whereas the latter live in a state of extreme poverty.
For sixteen years, Willow Kent lived a normal, relatively peaceful life where her biggest problem was warding off the advances of drunken miners. However, shortly after hearing the terrible news of treachery in the Core, a powerful city where the elite and prodigies reside, she suddenly finds the military disrupting the peace in her small town in search of a traitor. While Reese, a genetically-enhanced military officer, and his colleagues are successful in identifying the culprit, they also find an unexpected and more significant discovery: her.
Willow is suddenly thrust into a spotlight she doesn’t want and is expected to conform to the ideals and sophisticated culture of the Core. To make matters more complicated, she must marry a man she’s never met in order to maintain the peace and to avoid catalyzing a war. With her newly unearthed abilities and highly coveted genetic code, Willow finds herself aggressively fighting for her freedom and learning the rules of the dangerous game her life has become.
The first time I read this book, I was convinced that it deserved 4.5 stars. After reading it for the second time, however, I’ve realized that perhaps 5 stars might not even be enough to do the story justice. Either way, there’s no denying that I easily fell in love with Gambit!
Fair warning: The rest of this review may contain a handful of extremely mild spoilers. Proceed with caution, should you choose to continue reading.
The incredible world-building: As far as dystopian settings go, this one certainly did not disappoint! I dislike comparing books to other franchises, but I have to say that Gambit is a thrilling blend of The Hunger Games, X-Men, and Mara Dyer that resulted in quite the addictive read. The story’s world-building is solid and was executed in such way that readers are both well-informed and kept intrigued and craving for more details as to how the civilization came to be. Particularly, I’m hoping to read more about the prodigy wars and why people started going through the Surge in the latter installments of this series.
Also, can I just say that I love the fact that the story is set in London! It seems like the perfect place for a city as polished and refined as the Core. It also makes the accents relatively easier to imagine as I think the Core residents adopt a sophisticated English accent while nonresidents such as Willow have a somewhat Scottish lisp. But that’s just my opinion. Oh and my god, I nearly squealed when America was briefly mentioned! The idea that America is composed of multiple Core cities rather than just one (like in London) seems very interesting to me. Here’s to hoping that we’ll get to read more about America and perhaps other countries. There’s seriously so much material and possibilities that Denault can toy with!
The advancements in science, technology and genetic engineering: Denault obviously put plenty of thought in the Core’s technological advancements and scientific breakthroughs. As an engineering student, I really appreciated the detail and the imagination. I was also pretty damn impressed.
“This interactive glass technology is relatively new,” explained Fenn, demonstrating how he could display pictures and data on various surfaces in the kitchen. “Tiernam Industries has been working night and day to perfect it. And all the exterior windows in our penthouse are photovoltaic.”
“Photo—what?” I said with a blank look.
Reece gave me an indulgent smile. “Photovoltaic, also known as PV. The PV glass uses solar cells to turn sunlight into energy. The Core is always looking for new methods of renewable energy. Water, wind, solar. That’s the primary focus of Tiernam labs.”
In the Core, there’s a huge emphasis on environmental consciousness (e.g. most vehicles are powered via solar panels, paper is banned so as to not waste trees). This is definitely a world I wouldn’t mind living in. However, make no mistake, this civilization is nowhere near perfect. The book deals with a number of relevant, realistic problems that our actual society is facing: class struggle, misuse of power, discrimination, violation of human rights (I’m looking at you, clinics) and a clear division between those in power and those in poverty. In fact, Denault handled these issues brilliantly, in my opinion. There’s nothing more appealing than a book that’s incredibly written, exceptionally creative and socially relevant.
The story’s leading heroine: Ideally, my favorite kind of heroine to read about is one that’s strong and competent but still has the potential of becoming even better. That’s exactly what I saw in Willow Kent: a strong-willed, fiercely independent girl who’s in the process of finding herself and discovering her capabilities. She has an admirable, brave spirit – or to be more accurate, tiger – within her. At the same time, she’s still prone to being vulnerable as she struggles with learning about whom she truly is, which certainly adds more dimension to her character. Although there were instances in the book where I found her too stubborn for her own good, I really liked how committed she is to her principles. Willow is indeed fascinating to read about. Oh and her primary and secondary skills are absolutely badass!
“My past is part of me,” I told her. “The woman I’m meant to be will have to carry that forward. I can no sooner give it up than cut out a piece of my own heart.”
The potential male love interests: Truthfully, there are so many male characters in the book that I can easily imagine Willow ending up with. First, there’s her best friend, Temsik Storm who’s obviously infatuated with her. Although he isn’t my favorite character, Tem fills the childhood sweetheart role to a T.
“Just let me finish, all right?” He sighed, tapping his fingers again. “Look, I know you don’t think of me that way. You’re young, and we’ve been best friends forever. It’s just… we’re growing up, Will.” He paused and stared at the floor. “And the older I get, the more I realize that friendship alone fails to satisfy me where you’re concerned. I can’t—-” He shifted his gaze to the wall, then the cot, and finally looked right at me. “I can’t imagine my life without you in it.”
And then we have Thess Tiernam to whom Willow is betrothed. Truth be told, he is hardly present in the story. I had a lot of expectations with his character, mainly because a number of people spoke highly of him. According to his cousin, Thess is someone with a passion for hiking and environmental engineering, and “would live outdoors if he could”. Sounds dreamy, right? Sounds like a refreshing change from all the fictional bad boys and alpha males that grace many a bookshelf these days, yes? Well, sad to say, when Thess finally does make an appearance in the book, my first thought was, “Damn. What a total tool.” He sort of reminded me of Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones. However, as I’ve said, he is barely involved in Gambit and as such, I haven’t finalized my opinion of him just yet. Moving on.
Finally, we have Reese, the legitimate love interest. Quite frankly, Reese was the primary reason that held me back from giving this novel five stars. Throughout my first read, I hated him. After my second read, I now dislike him a little less. Still, I am definitely not a fan and I am most certainly not rooting for him. Why?
“You shouldn’t hurt me like this.” My voice came out fragile, like Morry’s gold-rimmed china cup.
“You shouldn’t mock my integrity,” he responded, without remorse. “Or insult my honor. I’ve warned you not to test me, but for some reason you seem bent on suffering the consequences, which are completely unnecessary.”
“Your cruelty is what’s unnecessary.”
Reese is the typical bossy, overbearing douche baguette. Yep, he is one of those alpha males that grace many a bookshelf these days. Personally, I don’t see the appeal in dominant, cruel assholes such as Edward Cullen, Christian Grey, Daniel Grigori and the latest addition to this growing list: Reese. I don’t find anything attractive in mistreating women. And that’s exactly what Reese did when he nearly choked Willow to death as he tried to take her dagger away. I wish I could say that it was a one-time thing, but nope, time and time again, he either verbally threatens or physically injures Willow whenever she defied him. I don’t know about you, but that isn’t romantic at all to me. And it never will be. I am so sick of this kind of literary trope as it not only encourages but also romanticizes abuse and being treated like shit.
So what convinced me to decrease my degree of hatred towards Reese, you ask? Well, it was partly because of this passage:
“Don’t ever do that again,” he told me. “You can’t risk your safety in such a fashion.”
Pain made me cross. “Oh, but you can risk yours?”
“I’m built for it. You, on the other hand, are not.” Discarding the cloth, he applied a clear salve and gave me a crooked smile. “Were you worried about me?”
“Not at all. In fact, I was coming to help Burke put you down.”
When I read it for the second time, I, for whatever reason, actually smiled. What challenged my opinion, however, is mainly Reese’s character development towards the end of the book. As the story progresses, Reese does become slightly better at being affectionate and he does, at times, resemble a decent human being. I guess his character has somewhat redeemable qualities. Despite this, I’m still not onboard with the idea of them ending up together. I believe Willow can do so much better, and I honestly can’t sense much chemistry between the two. It’s apparent to me that Reese sees Willow as a helpless girl rather than a competent equal.
Aspen Tiernam: Aspen is Thess’s cousin, but more importantly, he is my favorite character. In Gambit, Aspen plays the role of comic relief in the same manner Puck did in Julie Kagawa’s The Iron Fey series. Despite merely being a supporting character, Aspen’s presence is distinct and noticeable in the story. He was hilarious to read about, and I badly wanted more of him in the book. Hopefully, he’ll have a bigger role in the succeeding books. Also, can I just say that his skill of never missing a target? AWESOME! I mean, he’s like a much cooler, more badass, more appreciated Hawkeye from The Avengers.
And probably better looking. But I digress.
Okay, to be fully honest, a significant part of my being wants Aspen to end up with Willow. I know, I know. It isn’t going to happen. And he probably won’t ever show any romantic interest towards Willow, but I genuinely believe that they’d be perfect together. Unpopular opinion be damned.
Willow’s birth parents: Okay, let’s start with the mother, Morry Roanoke. I was actually surprised by her demeanor. She is such a far cry from Willow’s adoptive mother: calculating, business-minded and distant. Fenn Roanoke, on the other hand, is the ideal father figure: empathic, affectionate and welcoming. In a weird way, the two balance each other out.
“He’ll turn her against us!” snapped Morry.
“She’s already against us.” Reese tapped his fingertips audibly against his cup. “And if we’re not careful, she will remain that way.”
“Can we please talk about her as our daughter and not a political advantage?” offered Fenn, his plea softening my heart. “She’s a lost and lonely girl who needs to find her place here. I think we should do all we can to help her adjust.”
Sense of female empowerment and gender equality: I dislike novels which only feature one strong female character while the rest are one-dimensional cut-outs that depict everything feminism is fighting against. Thankfully, that isn’t the case in this book. Despite Reese’s clear dominance over his relationship with Willow, the story has scenes highlighting the strength of women – which I appreciated. One of which is the background of Gem, a supporting character who quickly befriends Willow.
“Well, I had two little brothers. Boys are more valuable than girls when it comes to physical labor. It would have been easy to sell me and use the currency to raise them instead.”
“What did you do?”
“I worked. Hard as I could. Cooked, cleaned, babysat my brothers. Whatever I could do to make myself valuable. I took jobs outside the apartment and gave my parents almost every penny I earned. Figured if they couldn’t survive without me, they’d keep me around. So, each year on my birthday, I went for a piercing. You know, to celebrate that I hadn’t been sold.”
In Gambit, Willow is raised to be modest and to dress conservatively so as to discourage advances from miners. She is taught that covering her body up is the right way to protect herself. When she moves to the Core and is instructed to put on a swimsuit, she promptly freaks out and talks about the value of modesty, which was fine with me. But then she claims that only doxies wear revealing attire, which was essentially slut-shaming. To which, Gem shrugs and says, “It’s different here. A girl of your status is held in high regard. You’ll be judged more by your behavior than your outfits.”
Now, this scene isn’t particularly significant plot-wise, but it spoke volumes to me. Aside from this instance, there are other scenes in the book where Willow expresses dislike towards her clothes and emphasizes on coverage. I actually like how this was incorporated in the story as it is very realistic. Characters such as Morry and Gem don’t think twice about wearing what they want when they want. They’re comfortable in their own skin – a confidence that stems from knowing that their self-worth isn’t measured by their clothes. In contrast, Willow hides herself in fear of getting harassed or coming off as indecent.
She lost the battle and grinned. “Oh, come on, didn’t you wear undergarments in the Outlying Lands?”
“Sure I did. But they were designed for coverage.” I shook my finger. “I don’t even want to think about what this is designed for.”
Yanking the scrap off my finger, she placed it on the appropriate pile. “It’s supposed to make you feel feminine.”
“I don’t need a flimsy strip of silk to make me feel like a girl,” I retorted, as she began putting away the clothing.
Through Willow’s belief in being conservative, it is implied that women do not have to strip themselves down in order to come across as feminine or physically attractive. Similarly, through Morry and Gem, it is implied that women also need not be ashamed of their bodies. Whatever the case, the point is: no female is defined by her choice of attire. This sends a powerful message because it accurately depicts the plight of girls such as myself in our current vindictive society that glorifies a certain kind of beauty and continues to practice victim-blaming.
In addition to empowering the female gender, the book hints at gender equality as well.
In my mind, the only difference between Kane and me was gender. How could tiny little particles swimming around inside us, invisible to the naked eye, justify how we were treated?
The plot and everything else:.Although the book leaned towards romance rather than dystopian science fiction, I greatly enjoyed the execution of the story’s premise. The story’s pacing was so on point that I couldn’t bring myself to put the book down. There was enough action to keep me happy, and info-dumping was completely avoided. Although I do think that her foreshadowing skills could use a bit of improvement, I can’t deny that C.L. Denault’s writing style is incredible with an eloquent flair that leaves readers – me in particular – at the edge of their seats, wanting more. Denault is a promising author, and Gambit easily wormed itself into my favorites. This may be her debut novel, but I will certainly keep my eyes out for more of her well-written works.
Excerpt from the book:
“No.” He gave me a weary smile. “You’re not a fool.”
“Then what am I?”
“You’re a wild card, darlin’. You just need to learn to play the game.”
Wild card. The wagering man’s term for an unpredictable draw. I’d seen it used often in the tavern. Other cards might support or complete a hand, but a wild card was the only one that could unexpectedly change the course of a game.
The more I thought about his comparison, the more it made sense. The Core once held a winning hand. Snatched from my intended life, however, they’d lost me in the deck. I’d grown up a different person, and now, they wanted me back for their original play. But the game had changed. I wasn’t what they thought.
I was an unpredictable draw.