How To Cheat by Matt Forbeck – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the second novel in Matt Forbeck’s self-published Dangerous Games trilogy.
“All I can say is that my search for a less-than-stellar Matt Forbeck novel continues.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
That pull quote might sound extremely odd, but it is true. I keep reading all these different novels that Matt Forbeck keeps putting out, and I just can’t get enough of his writing. Its starting to make me wonder if he *can* write what I’d call a bad book. Is this how the ardent fans of George R. R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson, Iain M. Banks, and others feel like? An author who puts out top-quality fiction again and again without any dip in quality? Because, that’s what the name Matt Forbeck has come to mean for me. In consideration, I’m sure that his earlier novels, from when he was just starting out on this whole writing gig thing, are not as good as his current crop of novels. I haven’t read anything that old from him so I can’t really say, but in today’s age of the “big names of SFF”, Matt deserves to be at the top of the list among all the others. He may not be writing about dark and violent fantasy, or a science fiction vision that is supremely grand and mind-blowing, but he is writing fiction that is pretty much perfect for the non-AA list audience.
The first novel of this trilogy, How To Play (review), was fantastic. The second one is just as good, for all the right reasons and is another top-of-the-mark offering from the man that I, and others, affectionately call the “Wordinator”, owing to his writing speed and the quantity of fiction he turns out. I mean, you have to have some serious wordsmithing skills to finish like seven novels (varying length) and ten comics in a single year. Right?
So let’s do a check-list here of all the things that Matt gets right here.
Liam Parker returns for a grand old adventure? Check.
A great murder mystery? Check.
Loads of GenCon goodness? Check.
Instills a desire to attend GenCon? Double Check.
Fantastic characters? Check.
Good pacing? Check.
Competent antagonist? Check.
Mojo Poker launch party? Triple Check!
Kickstarter goodness? Check.
Industry cameos? Check.
Geeky romance? Check.
Commentary on the industry? Check.
All around fun and awesomeness? Check, check, check, check.
Does that about cover it? Because I’m really not sure what else to say really. Compared to all of the other novels that Matt has put out in the last 2 years or so, How To Cheat definitely stands out because how different it is to the rest of it, barring How To Play of course. It continues to amaze, despite the constant exposure, that Matt can write in so many different genres so well and that his books are always a blast to read.
Highlight moments from the book were definitely the opening scene with the Diana Jones Awards, the launch of Liam’s Mojo Poker tabletop card game that he created with the in-book Matt’s help, and (on a very, very serious note) creating the desire to attend Gen Con. I would absolutely love to attend the con and reading about it through Matt’s novels doesn’t help. As Matt himself remarks, he’s been going to GenCon for a long, long time and he’s built up a considerable folio of references and callbacks, not to mention all the creators that he name-drops. It makes the entire event really come alive in a way that would not have been possible otherwise.
What this boils down to is the fact that How To Cheat, and its predecessor, are very intimate novels. And this intimacy is also readily apparent in the way that Matt writes. There is a great amount of familiarity and ease in the novel. GenCon doesn’t come across as this mega-event that is massively complicated (like, say, SDCC). The con comes off as an event that is for everybody, accepting of people of all sorts, whether creators or gamers or anything in between. It feels like a distinctly family event.
Of course, Matt also wrote in his kids and his wife in some really touching cameos that showcase that familial touch. The kids help Liam set up his booth, they help promote Mojo Poker, then help run the booth, and their enthusiasm is clearly infectious, since even Liam is able to get the murder mystery off his mind for those few minutes.
And yeah, another highlight was how much Liam as a character has continued to grow since the last time I saw him. He’s a bit more mature, more aware of how things happen at these cons, and has a business sense that continues to develop under in-book Matt’s mentoring. Just generally, Liam came off as a much stronger character, and since he is much more confident of himself, that translates through the writing as well to create a much better experience that was had in How To Play. Not that How To Play was a bad novel by any means, far from it.
What Matt has done in this novel is nothing short of extraordinary. There are very, very few books that give me this level of satisfaction, and even fewer number of authors behind those books. Off hand, the only ones I can think of are Bill King, Nathan Long, Jean Johnson, Aliette de Bodard and Helen Lowe, just to give examples. These are all writers in a definite class of their own and just reading their novels (or other formats) is a reward of its own.
That about taps me out, to be quite honest. As I said before, I’m just not sure what else I can say here. I love the setting, I love the characters, I love the pacing, I love the story. In short, I love everything about this novel. Can there be anything more to say in a case like this? I have no idea. This no doubt also has to do with the fact that I’ve read so much of Matt’s stuff that all the praise (and the criticism) I could have mentioned, I already have, in my other reviews for his books.
So all I’ll say in closing is that this novel has two thumbs-ups from me. Amazing, fantastic, awesome, stellar work.