Rebecca Zahabi sets her gripping debut in a future Britain of much darker times. Gay rights have been set back decades, and conversion therapy is commonplace once again (conversion therapy is actually still legal in the United Kingdom to this day).
When I read a novel set in a dystopian future, I always ponder just how much worse that future is compared to the real world today, and whether or not we’re just one step, one election away from exactly such a scenario.
In The Game Weavers, Seo Kuroaku is constantly in the public eye. Adopted as a boy by the formidable Sir Neil, he’s the youth champion of Twine, a high-pressured national sport. Played in arenas where thousands come to watch, weavers craft creatures from their fingertips to wage battle against each other.
When Seo is outed as gay by a newspaper, his once-loving fans turn hostile. Sir Neil can’t and won’t support him. With the help of his little brother, Minjun, and Jack—the man he’s seeing—Seo has to find a way to get his life back on track, whilst facing the biggest match of his life.
But it’s not just Seo who is pushing boundaries; his opponent is a woman who is on track to become the first female Twine world-champion.
This review is being written and edited with one eye firmly glued to the television as the presidential elections in the United States are happening, shortly after Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the US Supreme Court.
As a woman, as a lesbian, and as an immigrant, I watch such news with a sense of dread settling in my gut. It appeared at some point in 2016 and has been a constant companion ever since.
When I first read Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago, it was nothing but a terrifying dystopia and not a scenario I was afraid of. It wasn’t a future I could imagine happening in today’s Western world.
Now, I see Atwood’s world as a possible future.
As a child, I always thought human progress was linear—today, I understand that there will always be setbacks. There are always going to be periods where humanity delves into darker times.
And if we’re not careful, it is entirely possible that our society in the 21st century will experience such a setback.
We are, as it turns out, just one step, just one election away from the Dark Ages.
In today’s world, which seems to be filled with so much division, hate, and name calling, novels like the one Zahabi wrote are the kind of stories we need to put into the hands of our youth.
“Minjun is watching Seo play. His hands are spread above the ground, the skin glowing orange and pink. The light forms threads which go all the way from Seo’s fingertips down to the field. Then the strings weave creatures, which detach from the fingers with a wet sound, like babies cutting their own umbilical cord.”
The players aren’t allowed to see their opponent’s side unless they send one of their creatures to spy for them. The managers watch every move, screens showing their player’s territory from every angle. They don’t see what the opponent is doing either.
“The field is separated by a silver curtain, which the referees have woven and which hides the opponent’s strategy. The pawns can move through the curtain; when they touch it, it shimmers.”
The silver curtain disappears after half-time, and everyone sees everyone’s strategy. After a final attack, the winner is whoever holds most of the ground at the end.
“Today his pawns live mostly underground, in complex burrows which they’ve dug for themselves, in the soft, sandy ground Seo has made for them.”
Seo’s strategy while playing Twine is to craft underground creatures in the early stages of the game. He’s hiding, burrowing while playing Twine, the same way he’s hiding his real self when he’s not playing the game.
He only surfaces, surprising his opponent and his fans, during the second half of the match.
Despite the theme of homophobia running throughout the entire novel, this isn’t an overly political book. Seo might change the way Twine is played forever, but he’s not changing gay rights in his country.
The Game Weavers is not about protesting or changing the laws.
This coming-of-age novel is about finding your place. It’s about loyalty, family, and self-acceptance. But most of all, it’s about finding the courage to believe in yourself and stand up for yourself.
Seo has to decide whether or not to stand up for himself. Whether or not he’s willing to deal with scrutiny and public fallout. Whether or not he’s willing to disappoint his adopted father and his fans. And whether or not he can stand the abuse thrown his way by the tabloids.
Zahabi shows with her novel just how much representation matters. A female world-champion. A gay professional weaver. It can make all the difference. As a society, we need for those in the public eye to be proud of who they are because—like it or not—representation helps change the world.
As a lesbian, I can say that the subject of homophobia is incredibly well handled, and if I had a young adult in my household, I’d buy them this book in the hope of giving them some guidance and courage to stand up for themselves and others.
To fight for a better future, and perhaps, with our youth reading stories like this one, we can avoid the next setback after all.
Hardwired: Gender bias in robots and artificial intelligence by Rebecca Zahabi for TCM #2