This review is for those who have read or are familiar with the previous books, or don't mind knowing spoilers for them. Games Wizards Play, however, will remain spoiler-free.
Every eleven years, Earth's senior wizards hold the Invitational: an intensive three-week event where the planet's newest, sharpest young wizards show off their best and hottest spells. Wizardly partners Kit Rodriguez and Nita Callahan, and Nita's sister, former wizard-prodigy Dairine Callahan, are drafted in to mentor two brilliant and difficult cases: for Nita and Kit, there’s Penn Shao-Feng, a would-be sun technician with a dangerous new take on managing solar weather; and for Dairine, there's shy young Mehrnaz Farrahi, an Iranian wizard-girl trying to specialize in defusing earthquakes while struggling with a toxic extended wizardly family that demands she perform to their expectations.
Together they're plunged into a whirlwind of cutthroat competition and ruthless judging. Penn's egotistical attitude toward his mentors complicates matters as the pair tries to negotiate their burgeoning romance. Meanwhile, Dairine struggles to stabilize her hero-worshiping, insecure protégée against the interference of powerful relatives using her to further their own tangled agendas.
When both candidates make it through to the finals stage on the dark side of the Moon, they and their mentors are flung into a final conflict that could change the solar system for the better . . . or damage Earth beyond even wizardly repair.
Man, am I glad I didn't read that last (hidden) preview paragraph before I read the book. That would have taken away practically all of the tension! I mean, I guess you could/should see it coming if you look at it logically, but where's the fun if three quarters of the plot is spoiled before you even read the book? There had to be a better hook than that to sell your book.
But really, if you've read this far into the series, how could you not automatically pick up Book 10?
Now, I'd like to talk first about the Young Wizards series as a whole. I've seen some reviews claiming that Games Wizards Play is 'not as strong' as previous books, or is "a weak entry in the series". Looking back, I've noticed that the odd-numbered books (1, 3, 5) tended toward huge, universe-at-stake events, while the even-numbered books (2, 4, 6) focused more on the reactions to the big events. Nita and Kit's Ordeal was followed by figuring out how to approach Wizardry with their parents. Nita's battle against her mom's cancer was followed by her coming to terms with her own limitations and how to move forward. Not to say the even books didn't have their own excitement, but those seemed to be more of surprises than the main focus of the entire book. The formula did change a bit with books 7 and 8, with Wizard's Holiday acting more like a precursor to the all-out WAR in the 8th book. Book 9 stepped back to have a much needed calm-after-the-storm feel, while still throwing more at Nita and Kit to deal with.
And frankly, these characters weren't ready to be pitched into another war. Yes, Games Wizards Play is slower-paced in the sense that there aren't spells being thrown every two seconds, the universe isn't being swallowed by a black nothingness, and our character's lives aren't being threatened throughout the book. The main event, for all intents and purposes, is a Magic Science Fair. Is that the most exciting thing ever? No.
But this book focuses on the characters first and foremost. Nita is working with her newfound visionary talent, Kit and Nita are both figuring out their new relationship status, Dairine is dealing with Roshaun's disappearance. Everyone is taking a breath, looking inward for a little bit (what, a whole month or two?), and moving forward. Is it white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat riveting? Maybe not. Is it "weak" for being so? Absolutely not.
As always, Nita is an absolute joy to read. Her wit, her stubbornness, her insecurities, everything about her reads like a friend you'd love to know. Kit is less focused on in this entry, possibly because of his heavy involvement in the last book, but the couple times we do get in his head, he's still the old friend we know and love. And Dairine has matured a lot. Sure, she still runs her mouth when she feels like it, but at least now she knows and plans for the fallout of her actions. And seeing her in a mentoring role, that was great.
Both the mentees, Penn and Mehrnaz, while not given main character status, were still both amply fleshed out. Penn is a guy I loved to hate, and frankly couldn't wait til he got his comeuppance. Mehrnaz is much easier to sympathize with, what with her being shy and unsure of herself. Her home life isn't all it's cracked up to be, and I sincerely hope that Dairine's influence was helpful to her future coping. Frankly, I wouldn't be adverse to seeing either of these guys in the future. I know TV shows with kids/teens are always trying to pass the torch to the younger generation, and I'm usually against that one hundred percent. But, so long as Nita, Kit and the crew are wrapped up well enough (in future installments), I wouldn't mind seeing Penn or Mehrnaz again.
As far as Nita and Kit's relationship went, I liked it. I thought it was sweet. I know some reviews (I really need to stop reading those) thought it was unnatural how slow they were taking things. I'd argue that it was nice to have a relationship more focused on preserving friendship and insecurities rather than immediate sexual confidence, annoying pet names, and incessant snogging. In another unconventional turn of events, there was an interesting chapter in which gay relationships and asexual relationships were discussed. And it was done naturally. I'll admit I was a little surprised that the subject was mentioned at all, just in terms of what else I've been reading, but the conversations in which it occurs are both natural in terms of how it's broached and how it's discussed.
Can I just say that I love this series? So. Freaking. Much.
That being said, I do have an issue with this book's ending. Not spoiling anything, I promise. The ending was just...so abrupt. The big, flashy, exciting climax happens in the span of about 15 pages, then the denouement takes another 15-20 and only really focuses on two of the six main participants. What?! Was there a page limit? Why are we suddenly getting no information on these characters? I understand a lot of books don't want a completely wrapped up ending, wanting to leave some of it up to the readers to fill in the gaps, not wanting to spoon-feed everything to us. But really? Over 600 pages and only about 30 of those dedicated to this ending?! There's leaving people wanting more, and then there's this.
Still, Games Wizards Play is one of the best books I have read in a while. It does the characters justice, and serves the series well. I read this mostly while at work, and there were times I just couldn't keep from smiling.
I would say in recommending an age-range for this book, the series really does do a good job at weeding out the under-prepared by itself. If, say, an elementary-school kid sped through So You Want to Be a Wizard, Deep Wizardry, and High Wizardry, I think they'd get a little caught on the much slower-paced and historically dense A Wizard Abroad. I know it took me a couple tries to fully appreciate that book, even in high school. The Wizard's Dilemma is definitely a little older in subject matter, and pairing it with complex techno-speak (I think) helps steer it towards more mature readers. If at this point, you've already made it through the other nine entries with all their techno-babble, philosophizing, battles, loss, and the like, then you've got no problem continuing on.
Perhaps not my personal favorite of the series, it still gave me another great experience into this world where magic pairs seamlessly with science and the power of youth and imagination are nearly limitless. Now I'm itching to reread the whole series, just to stay in this world a little longer. Oh, and I agree, Pluto will always be a planet to me.
Approximate Reading Time: 10 Hours