I do love a Neal Shusterman book. Unwind is one of my favorite YA novels of all time, and I hugely enjoyed Dry when I reviewed it back in 2018. Shusterman is back with a new book, Game Changer and it’s a… no, that would be too easy. Game Changer is not a paradigm-shifting novel set to change the history of young adult publishing, but it is a very very good book.
What is Game Changer?
The novel has a simple premise, one similar to that found in Quantum Leap. Except where Sam Beckett found himself bouncing into different bodies, here narrator Ash stays the same, but the world around him shifts. Ash is a linebacker for his college team, great at his job, but as is usually the case for defensive positions, he is well out of the limelight. During a game, when Ash makes a particularly crunching tackle, he feels a shift. Like a concussion but not a concussion. He shakes it off, finishes the game, and heads home.
It’s only when he runs a stop sign, nearly being crushed beneath a lorry, Ash realizes something is very wrong. He ran the sign because it was blue. But stop signs are red, right? Not in the world Ash now finds himself in. And so it goes on.
Ash discovers he is a subjective locus, a “sub-loc”—a curious term for what he has become. He has the ability to travel between alternate what-might-have-been Earth’s. Now he just needs to learn how to control it. When Ash experiences a high impact, he jumps into a new Earth. Each version is further away from the one he started out in. In Game Changer Ash narrates how the changes affect his relationships with his friends and family. How they affect the person that he is. There is also, inevitably, an end-of-the-world dimension to Ash’s story. If he can’t put things right, find balance for the Earth, events will take care of themselves and the entire planet may be written over. It’s a race against time, and Ash will discover more than he ever knew about himself before the story is over.
Why Read Game Changer?
Game Changer, like many of Shusterman’s books, is brilliantly thought-provoking. Each shift changes Ash’s position in the world, and therefore his view of both himself and how the way the world works. It’s a very deliberate choice to make Ash a strong white American footballer. His initial character is not exactly a stereotype, but I guess in many ways he’s a classic American teenager. He’s aware that he is privileged, but as the novel opens he doesn’t really understand how far that privilege extends.
Shusterman handles the evolution of Ash’s character expertly. He avoids making “obvious” leaps; Ash’s shift is gradual, though he does end up far away from where he began. It’s utterly compelling. You know from how long the book has left to go that each change that Ash plans is not going to bring about what he is looking for, yet you can’t help but want to know what will change and how Ash and his friends are going to deal with what comes next. The supporting characters are excellent.
The whole “sub-loc” device that Shusterman hangs the novel on probably doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. But there is no fun in working out how the magic works. The author has a clear vision about what he wants to say, to make us see the world through different people’s eyes, and Ash shifting through alternate Earths is how he’s decided to do it.
Using his shifting device, Shusterman examines prejudice whether that be racial, gender, or sexuality-based, and there is a theme of domestic abuse that runs as an undercurrent to Ash’s story. I think this is a pitch-perfect novel for its intended audience of around 14 and upwards. It deals with many important issues in a sensitive and compelling way, whilst also telling a thrilling story. It is very hard to put down. I’ve been doing very well with my 2021 reads so far, and Game Changer is another excellent addition.
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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review.