Before Elena and the Salvatore brothers there was Jenny and her supernatural paramour Julian. Here’s my review of The Forbidden Game by L. J. Smith.
The Forbidden Game is made up of three volumes:
- Volume I: The Hunter (1994)
- Volume II: The Chase (1994)
- Volume III: The Kill (1994)
In each book, Jenny and her friends are pulled into different realms, where they have to play The Forbidden Game at the behest of Julian, who is the youngest Shadow Man and just happens to be in love with Jenny.
Volume I: The Hunter (1994)
In my opinion – the best book of the three.
We meet Jenny Thornton: blonde; green eyed; upper middle class parents. She’s dating the handsome, popular high school jock and has friends from different cultural/socio-economic backgrounds (aka perfect high school heroine material).
Wanting to celebrate her boyfriend’s (Tom) 17th birthday in style, she heads out to find something special for their friends to do that evening. Ending up on the wrong side of town, Jenny realises she’s being followed by two unsavoury looking gents (nineties bad guys wear ripped jeans, dirty flannel and red bandannas).
Lo! There’s a door! Where did that come from? Jenny dives in and finds herself in a weird games store where she meets the enigmatic Julian.
Julian is the epitome of the romantic bad boy: unkempt white hair and intense blue eyes like a Bunsen burner flame. Slim, black leather clad. An acid punk rocker complete with snake tattoo.
She ends up buying a game from him…it is after all a games store. It’s a glossy white box simply called ‘The Game’.
Taking it home, she has enough time to get ready before Tom and friends arrive for birthday shenanigans.
Jenny’s friends, Dee (athlete), Audrey (sophisticate), Mike (geek), Zach (artist), Summer (hippy) and boyfriend Tom (jock) find ‘The Game’ is actually a paper dolls house. And in the spirit of birthday shenanigans begin to put it together. Following the game’s instructions, they invoke a rune (as you do) and find themselves inside the game, where the gorgeous white haired stranger from the store, Julian (also known as The Shadow Man) puts Jenny and co. in different rooms of the paper dolls house…which is now very real.
But this game is all for Jenny. She must travel through each room of the house to help her friends face their worst nightmares, including her own and make it to the top of the house before dawn. If she fails, everyone will be trapped in there forever. But Julian has other motives in mind, because ‘The Game’ is just a ploy to keep Jenny with him forever
Back cover of The Hunter (1994)
Volume II: The Chase (1994)
Jenny and co. are back in the real world but at a terrible cost.
Losing their friend Summer to house, who wasn’t strong enough to make it through her nightmare, they don’t know how to begin explaining what has happened and are grieving her loss.
To make matters worse, those two unsavoury gents from The Hunter (book one) have stolen the white, glossy box with ‘The Game’ inside, where Jenny trapped Julian.
Then the nightmares begin and strange things are starting to happen.
When Julian reappears at senior prom: all otherworldly handsome and charisma; he’s not too happy with his beloved Jenny, who tricked and subsequently trapped him in his own game. This time he’s upped the stakes and one by one, Jenny’s friends start to disappear.
Unless Jenny can find Julian’s hiding place she’ll lose them all to the Shadow World.
Volume III: The Kill (1994)
Jenny, Dee, Michael and Audrey are the only ones left.
Now, the remaining four friends must unlock the door to the Shadow World, if they hope to save Tom and Zach.
We learn that Julian and the shadow men were first summoned by Jenny’s grandfather years before, and this was when Julian first saw her and has been in love with her ever since.
Not having any other leads, the four survivors head off to where Jenny’s grandfather lived and opened the gateway to the other side…before he was taken by the Shadow Men.
Jenny, Dee, Audrey and Michael enter the Shadow World and another game begins.
They find themselves in a closed amusement park, where Julian is waiting for them. To win the game, they have to find three Spanish doubloons. If they succeed, everyone can go free.
As they search, they discover Summer and Jenny’s grandfather are still alive. But freeing them brings about terrible consequences, beyond even Julian’s power.
Now Jenny and co. must face all of The Shadow Men in their own domain.
A Trip Down Memory Lane
I got the first book eighteen years ago, back in 1995, from the mobile book shop that came to my primary school (US: elementary school).
I was already a huge fan of the Point Horror series by then, so when I saw the front cover of The Forbidden Game: The Hunter, my tween mind was captivated …and yes that does mean I judged a book by its cover (and zl1lza0aI still do).
Side note: I still think the older covers are much better than the newer one they used in the combined reprint from 2010.
The Original UK Covers from 1994
I sat on the brown parquet floor in my school assembly hall, reading the first few pages. I promptly handed over my saved pocket money and almost finished the first book by that evening.
I begged my mum for some extra money to buy the rest of the trilogy and got them the following afternoon. (Thanks mum – you’re awesome!).
I really enjoyed these books growing up, and have since read each of them at least twice.
The Forbidden Game is very much, a product of the early nineties and the settings and language reflect this. It was time when high school settings were massively popular as a backdrop in a lot of popular culture.
Think Beverly Hills 90210 (the original and best version), The Babysitters Club (books and TV series), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the film), Sweet Valley High (books and TV series) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
The Forbidden Game has all the elements you need for YA (young adult) fantasy romance:
- The coming of age story (bildungsroman) – from the POV of the heroine.
- The heroine on the cusp of adulthood – still virginal, but not necessarily always innocent.
- The boyfriend – solid, dependable, handsome but bland.
- The alluring and dangerous ‘bad’ guy to complicate the heroine’s love life and form the last part of the romantic-triangle. Gorgeous, morally grey, totally in love with the heroine, romanticism embodied.
- The group of close knit friends.
- Thematic settings, in this instance horror based.
- Internal and exrernal conflict.
While the close knit group of friends are often flat characters who rarely veer from their stereotypes (high school jock, athletic black girl, over privileged snob, geeky Jewish kid etc.) they have more to say than Jenny does, at least during the first two books.
Jenny feels quite bland and unassuming. She starts has a passive character, either led by her love for Tom or by her attraction to Julian. That’s not to say she doesn’t come into her own eventually, it just takes time.
This passivity continues except in moments of crisis, usually during the climax and falling action of each volume (in that way she reminds me of Elena from The Vampire Diaries).
Prior to the first Game, she is entirely subservient to Tom’s wishes, dressing and acting exactly the way he wants her to. As the series progresses, Jenny and her friends fight against the antagonist Julian. In doing so, her friendships deepen; Jenny matures to become more responsible and independent.
Character summary from Wikipedia
Now L.J. Smith wrote a good’un, when she created Julian.
From his intense looks to his pursuit of Jenny, he is the embodiment of burgeoning sensuality: the intense crush, that first meaningful kiss – it is teenage passion and desire wrapped up in blue eyes and black jeans.
He’s no Damon Salvatore. Julian is not developed enough as the antagonist for you to connect with him deeply. But he is still a crush worthy character.
Julian is beautiful. He is cunning, sensual and otherworldly. Compared to Tom – dependable, handsome, (very human) teenage Tom – Julian is the polar opposite; and the more fascinating of the two, which is the whole point.
The only thing they have in common is that they both control Jenny’s actions in one way or another.
The horror is good, especially in the first book. It is similar to fairy tale based horror where it plays out subtly and has moral consequences, rather than all out gore, guts and death. There are some scenes that will tickle your own irrational fears, which is always enjoyable when indulging in the horror genre.
The Forbidden Game has a little of everything that embodies early YA romantic fantasy now made famous by series such as the Twilight Saga, and The Vampire Diaries. However, The Forbidden Game is simpler, shorter and I think easier to read. It is less complicated across the whole trilogy than a lot of YA books written today. It’s also not as genre led as you would expect from a Point Horror.
Also I should point out that this series was published before the term YA was really in literay vernacular. Unlike today, the market was very different and the trilogy, in so many ways is a product of the 1990s.
Reprinted and bound as one book in 2010 with a new cover.
If I had to compare it to another series, I’d say it’s a bit like a Mills & Boon for younger teens. That’s not an insult (I have my fair share of M&B’s). It skims the surface of deeper issues that other YA novels dive into: it’s a ‘safe’ to read.
The trilogy also follows a formula: one that works, but formulaic nonetheless.
Personally, I have always found The Forbidden Game enjoyable and entertaining. As long as you understand and accept what you’re reading isn’t going to blow your mind…you will have a nice collection to add to your book shelves.