Game Changer by Neal Shusterman

The Blurb On The Back:

A searing exploration of the world we live in – and the ones we don’t.

Ash is used to taking hits for his high school football team – but then those hits start pushing him through a succession of universes almost-but-not-really like his own.  As small shifts in reality become significant shits in Ash’s own identity, he starts to question the world he thought he knew, as well as the ones he finds himself catapulted into.

For better or worse, the one thing Ash knows is that he’s got to find a way to put everything back. 

You can buy GAME CHANGER by Neal Shusterman from Amazon USA, Amazon UKWaterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s Friday 8 September.

Ashley ‘Ash’ Bowman plays defensive lineman for his high school football team in Tibbetsville with his best friend, Leo Johnson who plays wide receiver and whose skill has colleges courting him with scholarship offers.  Ash’s dad works in auto part distribution and his mum is a nutritionist and he has an awkward, somewhat distant relationship with his younger brother Hunter.  

Currently single, Ash has always had a bit of a thing for Katie, a cheerleader for the football team, but she’s dating the quarterback, Layton, and while Ash can see that Katie isn’t particularly happy in the relationship, he’s never brought himself to intervene.  And that’s kinda Ash in a nutshell – he sees himself as a decent enough guy but he’s drifting through life, aware of the problems and injustices in society but never really engaging with them despite Leo pointing out what a luxury that is for him.

Everything changes, however, when Ash takes a serious knock while tackling an opposing player during a football game.  Although everything seems the same, he can’t shake the feeling that reality has somehow changed and it’s only when he’s driving home and discovers that stop signs are now blue.  But that’s not the only change – in this world, his father is rich, successful and has standing in the local town and although Ash is a lot closer to Hunter, he discovers that he’s also the High School drug dealer and he seems to have had a brief thing with Leo’s younger sister Angela. Then during the next week’s football game, another knock sends him into another parallel world, one where segregation never ended ..

With the help of some inter dimensional beings Ash calls the Edwards, Ash discovers that unless he puts things back to how they should be, then the universe will correct itself, obliterating Ash and everyone else on the planet for good …

Neal Shusterman’s YA SF novel is a high concept tale with a QUANTUM LEAP vibe about being a better person, privilege and tackling injustice while also being honest about apathy and wanting a simpler life.  It’s slickly written, fast-paced and a smart way of examining current issues without being preachy while also taking traditional high school tropes and stereotypes and using them in a fresh way.

Shusterman is simply one of the best YA writers working right now.  In my opinion, very few authors tackle high concept novels as well and as consistently well as he does and part of the reason for this is that he manages to take issues and discuss them without ever feeling like he’s trying to ram a message down your throat.  The central spine of this book is about social injustice, whether that’s racism, homophobia, sexism or abuse with Shusterman using each of the parallel universes that Ash “jumps” into to explore how bad society can get.  What’s particularly good about the book is that while the current world is clearly not perfect (and indeed Ash acknowledges that it needs to improve), Shusterman also points out how things can be worse and how small things in history can have big consequences.

Ash’s first person voice is great – wry, self-aware and fluid, he makes you believe that he’s in this situation and makes you believe in his reactions to the same.  I also believed in his apathy and somewhat passive attitude towards social issues, not because he doesn’t care but because it doesn’t really affect him and so he doesn’t really think about them.  Leo does call him out on this and as the novel progresses, the extremity of segregation makes him consider opportunity and equality a lot more just as when he goes into a reality where he’s gay, he realises the impact of homosexuality as identity and how it’s viewed by others and how when he becomes a girl, he realises how women get talked over and put down.

I also admired how Shusterman tackles the abuse storyline.  It would have been easy to have him go down the physical abuse route between Katie and Layton (and indeed, there are hints at the start that this is where he’s going) but the truth is much more complicated than that and the way Shusterman talks about control and coercion and how abusers undermine their victims is well done and clever.  Also clever is how Katie explains how complicated it is and why they stay in these types of situation, which does make you re-evaluate the topic.

If I’m being honest, then I was a little underwhelmed by the Edwards – they’re mainly there to explain the SF elements, which was fine but I didn’t quite get the delineation between their characters that Shusterman tries to establish.  I also didn’t understand the reason for the multiplication and would have liked some explanation for it and also for why two of the Edwards take the decisions they make in the final quarter of the book.  

On a similar nitpicky basis, the ending seems a little disjointed given the earlier events and I found it difficult to reconcile them.  This was because all of the worlds had followed on from the previous ones until the end, when we’re given a new situation that hadn’t previously been shown.  It’s not a big problem because you can see it as being part of the correction but it did throw me a bit at first.

All in all I thought was a good read that makes you rethink the subjects and does so in a way that’s entertaining without ever being preachy.  I have never read a bad Shusterman novel and will definitely check out what he does next.  

GAME CHANGER was released in the United Kingdom on 11th February 2021.   Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

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