“Build your deck. Prepare for battle. Change the world.”
Let me just start this review off by saying that as someone who is not a fan of made-up games in their fantasy stories, I honestly don’t know why I was so drawn to this book. It really should not have worked for me, on so many levels, and yet it did.
Magical card games, folkloric monsters, religious fanatics, hidden identities, inexplicable powers, and semi-reluctant found family vibes… Card Mage: Slumdog Deckbuilder has it all!
In Domstadt, the City of Cards, playing the magical card game and possessing highly coveted cards is the only way to survive. All his life, Hick has been dead-set on becoming a great cardplayer to crawl his way out of the slums and rise into the city proper. But 4 years ago, his mother suddenly disappeared after going to compete in the upper city, leaving his family with only one measly card to make ends meet. And to make matters worse, a couple of religious fanatics have now set their eyes upon him and he ends up losing that very last card.
In order to keep his family alive, he is now forced to go undercover in the criminal underground card circuit armed with nothing but his sharp wit and a peculiar card from a mysterious benefactor. He will do anything to protect those he loves and to find out what happened to his mom, though he quickly realises that he may not have been prepared for the hidden truths that he will discover along the way.
Now, the story opens with Hick watching one of these card games, and I don’t think I’ve ever been hooked faster onto a story than in this case. I could see how some people might find this opening to feel like a bit of an info-dump, but I personally really appreciated that we are immediately introduced to all the ins and outs of the game that becomes such an integral part of the plot later on. Also, the magical card game is just undeniably cool, with all of the creatures/spells on the cards literally coming to life on the board, so I thought it was a great hook to start the book off with.
I’ll admit that Hick’s strong first person narration threw me off a bit at the very start, but I personally warmed up very quickly to his character voice. He’s only 17 years old, but living in the slums and being the sole provider for his family since his mom disappeared has forced him to grow up fast.
There are moments where he acts very level-headed, mature and responsible, and other (slightly frustrating) moments where he acts a bit more juvenile and lets his emotions get the better of him, as is really only natural for a hormonal teenager. Overall, I think Patrick did a really great job of writing a believable and sympathetic younger protagonist who you can root for, even if you want to punch him in the face sometimes.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how well-developed all the side characters were and I loved exploring all the complicated character dynamics. In order to compete in the tournaments, Hick has to assemble a gang of card owners to round out the card deck they can play with. And slowly but surely, there starts to develop an almost reluctant kind of found family dynamic that I was SO here for. Especially the strong bond with his best friend Gunne warmed my heart though, and I just absolutely loved her spunk.
I also really liked the quieter moments that we spend with Hick’s own family, where we get to really understand what he is fighting so hard for. He acts all tough and gritty, but it doesn’t take long to realise that he’s a very loyal and protective guy with an incredibly big heart. I wasn’t expecting to get so emotionally invested in all of these characters, but by the end I was just cheering, crying, laughing and gasping right alongside them all.
It honestly boggles my mind how quickly Patrick managed to pull me into the story and how much he managed to pack into this relatively short fantasy book without anything feeling underdeveloped. His rich and imaginative world building is without a doubt the highlight of the story here and I loved the sense of atmosphere that he established and maintained throughout the entire novel. The grimy, criminal underbelly of the Slums with all its dark alleyways and dilapidated game arenas was weirdly alluring in a way, and I loved being immersed in that dark setting.
This world feels well-established and lived-in, yet there is also still a lot of mystery and intrigue embedded within the world building. The intriguing pieces of lore and tantalising implications about the magic kept me glued to the page and had me theorising all the way through.
And speaking of magic, I absolutely loved all the magical card games that we get to experience (yes, experience!) here. I am not a visual reader at all, but I loved how Patrick managed to make all of the card games completely come to life before my eyes because of his cinematic and vivid writing style. The build-up of tension is very satisfying and the stakes are proven to be very high from the get-go, so that got my heartrate up very quickly in some scenes.
I also loved that the game feels well-developed with its distinct rules and regulations, yet it quickly becomes clear that our characters only know so much and that there is still a lot more to discover. We get surprising displays of power, never before seen cards, mysterious benefactors, and enthralling hints about the wider world that’s just waiting to be explored.
Needless to say, I had a blast reading this book and I absolutely can’t wait for more. This is the very first book by Benedict Patrick that I’ve read, and it most certainly won’t be the last.
Card Mage: Slumdog Deckbuilder is a fast-paced and gripping story filled with vibrant characters, rich and imaginative world building, thrilling action scenes, atmospheric settings, and incredibly captivating layers of intrigue and mystery. If you like unpredictable stories that allow you to theorise and search for hidden breadcrumbs along the way, then I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
*Thank you to the author for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.