Welcome to another installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!
All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.
Let’s get started!
The subject of today’s book-review post is Derek Taylor Kent’s novel Kubrick’s Game.
Shawn Hagan is a film student at UCLA’s School of Film and Television, a gifted director of photography, cameraman, and lighting designer with aspirations toward directing. He’s probably like many cinephiles you know: obsessive, prone to losing himself in films, with a hard time relating to others.
He’s also a fan of puzzly scavenger hunts, tackling them with his friend Wilson, a former child star with his own directorial ambitions. They also recruit Shawn’s TA (and crush), Samira Singh, to join them. But when Shawn’s film professor asks for Shawn’s help deciphering the contents of a mysterious package, Wilson, Sami, and Shawn will find themselves on a puzzle hunt unlike anything they’ve ever seen.
The package is from visionary director Stanley Kubrick, a man who has been dead for fifteen years. Apparently, he left one last gift to his fans and fellow film lovers: an elaborate puzzle whose endgame could change history.
As Shawn, Wilson, and Sami unravel each clue, delving deep into Kubrick’s life and filmography, they discover they’re not the only ones in pursuit of the solution to Kubrick’s game; not only are students from other film schools also on the hunt, but shadowy forces are also working to solve the puzzle…forces that are willing to lie, cheat, steal, and worse to get what they want.
What could Kubrick have left behind to justify such means? Will Shawn, Sami, and Wilson solve the famous chessmaster’s last gambit?
Kubrick’s Game is a puzzly thriller/adventure piece very much in the vein of The Da Vinci Code, though a far more satisfying read, more akin to the Shakespeare-fueled mystery of Jennifer Lee Carrell’s Interred with Their Bones or Haunt Me Still than the smack-you-in-the-face-with-coincidence style of Mr. Brown. Kent is clearly a fan of Kubrick’s work, and that enthusiasm infuses every page of the story.
Part puzzle hunt, part tribute, and part whodunit, Kubrick’s Game revels in the minutiae of classic films, adding depth and meaning to cinematic quirks and questions that hardcore film geeks have been debating and theorizing about for years.
But Kent goes one step further by including relevant images and frames of film, allowing the reader to follow the narrative. You can’t quite solve the puzzles alongside the protagonists, especially in the later puzzles (unless you’re a serious Kubrick aficionado, that is), but you know enough to avoid any possible frustration.
On the puzzle side, there are really three puzzly narratives to unravel. The first is the puzzle hunt early in the game, which is very straightforward. The second is Kubrick’s game itself. The third is the whodunit of the story, pondering who Shawn and his team can trust and who they’re working against. It’s a multilayered narrative that never bogs down, despite the twists and turns and numerous characters in play.
[Image courtesy of Biography.com.]
Kubrick himself becomes a major player in the story, as his motivations, his choices, and his interests are crucial to the plot. His films as well become intriguing characters — particularly Eyes Wide Shut, often a maligned part of Kubrick’s legacy, though one I have more appreciation for after reading this book.
(And Kent is clearly having some fun with some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Kubrick’s life and works in this novel, but he does so without mocking.)
As for the human characters, Sami and Wilson are amiable support characters; they’re likable and capable, focused and flawed in their own ways, but Shawn is clearly the centerpiece of the novel, so most of Sami and Wilson’s more intriguing character aspects only emerge in reaction to Shawn.
As for Shawn, he’s a little polarizing, because you want to like him, but several of his choices make it hard to do so. Some of this can be attributed to Shawn’s social awkwardness and insensitivity; there are certain character moments that are selfish and border on the emotionally brutal.
(Some characters theorize that Shawn is on the spectrum, but I don’t feel comfortable commenting either way. It isn’t particularly germane to the plot, so long as you can accept that Shawn is fairly tone-deaf socially and has difficulty connecting with others.)
That being said, you cheer when Shawn succeeds and you root for him when he falters, which are signs of a solid protagonist.
Although the antagonists descend a bit into cartoonish villainy, that’s a minor quibble. For the most part, the stakes feel high and the mentality of Shawn, Wilson, and Sami’s team against the world is an easy one to buy into.
Kent has done an impressive job of constructing an elaborate mystery worthy of Kubrick’s labyrinthine storytelling, one that should satisfy thriller fans and puzzle fans alike.
Kubrick’s Game is available on Amazon in hardcover, softcover, audiobook, and ebook.
[Full disclosure: I received a free copy of today’s book in exchange for a review.]
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