This post includes reviews of the books in the All for the Game series:
The Foxhole Court (#1) | The Raven King (#2) | The King’s Men (#3)
The Foxhole Court (All for the Game #1)
Multiple writers that I admire and whose work I love highly recommend this trilogy, so I figured I should give it a shot. College-aged characters plus sports is not usually my go-to, and I’m honestly not one hundred percent sure what this story is, beyond the standard coming-of-age narrative that college-aged protagonists usually undergo. Overall, the initial premise stretched my suspension of disbelief pretty significantly, since this particular college student is a son on the run from his bloodthirsty mafia father. Neil is terrified of his identity being revealed, and he ends up getting close to other people from his past who might remember and expose him.
And then there’s another twist—all of this is intricately connected to the sport of Exy, some sort of lacrosse/racquetball/rugby mashup created by the author. As someone who is not particularly sporty, I bounced between having no idea what was going on while the characters are playing this sport to acknowledging that it’s okay that I have no idea what’s going on. Honestly, I applaud the author for writing a book about “sportsball” that includes all the drama and excitement of a sports story while sidestepping any potential criticism about not getting the sport right.
Neil isn’t a sympathetic character; neither are his new college teammates. These guys don’t have baggage, they have an entire luggage train. It was initially difficult to keep track of everyone, especially when the full team was introduced, but by the end of the story, I both had it down and was fascinated by the multiple layers of interaction and dynamics between them all.
The Foxes are the quintessential ragtag team, but the reasons behind their status are both intentional and tie directly into the larger picture. The first game of the season acts as the climactic set piece, but it is what happens after the game that is the true moment when all the conflicts come together. This story doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but it forces a sensation that all it will take is a single nudge for the ground to vanish beneath their feet. By the end of the book, I was completely invested and still wasn’t quite sure why. I do know that I have no idea what will happen next, whether I want or don’t want any sort of romance between any of the characters to appear, and that I can’t wait to read the next installment of this trilogy.
The Raven King (All for the Game #2)
Excellent storytelling means that you’re not sure about the characters, you’re not sure about the story concept, and you’re not really sure where anything is going, but you MUST find out what happens next. I wasn’t able to write up my review of The Foxhole Court right after I read it, so I was excited to finally dive into The Raven King once I got home from vacation. Part of me was worried that my initial interest would peter off in the week between, but I was once again absorbed from the very beginning. Here, the team dynamics of the Foxes are changing, but it’s not yet clear whether things will go from better or worse. More sportsball is played, and I found myself hooked on every game and what the physical and emotional outcome would be. Secrets are revealed throughout this book, and I’m more than impressed by how Sakavic uses a made-up sport as an allegory for multiple characters’ involvement in the behind-the-scenes mafia threat.
However, not everything revolves around Neil and Kevin’s weird backgrounds and how they are inextricably linked to Exy. We find out more details about twins Aaron and Andrew’s peculiar backstories, and it is packed with just as much drama. This leads to subtle reveals that let me start to predict the direction of the eventual romance I’ve been promised, but it’s clear from the start that it will not be a typical love story. I’m fascinated by how two such damaged characters will eventually end up coming to care for each other, especially considering the dark climax of this trilogy’s midpoint.
Most stories that include the found-family trope have a certain layer of warm fuzziness, but this story flips that premise on its head. The Foxes’ battle toward becoming a true team involves the prickliest found-family vibes ever. Along the way, Neil starts to shift out of survival mode (despite his best intentions), and his emotional intelligence development is compelling and as adorable as it is frustrating. Sakavic hits us with a brutal ending that makes for a fascinating hook toward the final book, and I’m wasting no time writing my review so that I can dive right in as soon as possible.
The King’s Men (All For the Game #3)
The final book in this fascinating trilogy escalates, well, everything. The dynamics between the characters, the sportsball drama, and the external drama that I occasionally forgot existed outside of the highs and lows of the intensity of collegiate sports. Neil and his friends (because they are his friends now, despite pretty much everyone’s best efforts) probably wish that life was as simple as “muddle through classes and play amazing Exy.” However, it is the nature of the team put together by this particular coach that their lives are more HBO organized crime miniseries than 8-season WB family values with hot people series.
The premise of this trilogy makes one aspect of the conclusion inevitable. This is the story of a true underdog team. Part of me expected the author to up-end that expectation, but that result would not have done justice to everything Sakavic has developed for this team and the greater conflicts surrounding them. However, even when the final result was unsurprising, the winding road to get there kept me enthralled. Do I still understand much about how Exy is played or how the college tournament system works? No, and I don’t really care. I still love that, because Exy is completely made up (though the points do matter), I was able to go with the flow and take the characters’ reactions to each game as truth instead of coloring the circumstances with my own expectations.
The highs of winning games are tempered by the legitimately terrifying dark moment(s) of this story. Because this trilogy is still, oddly, part of the organized crime subgenre. I didn’t understand how it meshed with a sports story, at first, but now that we’re in World Cup season and I’m reminded how much of a train wreck FIFA is, I officially retract the confusion I indicated in my reviews of the earlier books in this trilogy. Neil may be the hero of his own story and a knight or bishop for the leaders of his team, but we are forcibly reminded that he is ultimately still a pawn in the greater scheme of things. Flipping between the tension of winning or losing a game and genuine survival for the main character only enhanced my immersion in this narrative.
As Neil’s team slowly becomes his family, something he’s never had a good example of, one exception remains. Andrew has his own rules, stemming from his equally violent past, and that’s on top of whatever mental health diagnosis he operates under. What results is the weirdest enemies-to-lovers arc ever, with one character who is attracted to the other despite himself and another who wouldn’t recognize uncomplicated relationships if his life depended on it. I hesitate to call what evolves between Neil and Andrew a romance, but it resembles something like the closest to happiness either man is ready for at this point in their lives.
I read this trilogy because of how well-regarded it is by one of my favorite authors. I’m very glad I took a chance on it, even if its re-read value doesn’t have the same appeal to me as it does to her. I would, however, leap on a follow-up story set at least a few years in the future. Though this ending is solid, Sakavic has created such compelling characters in a unique world that I wish I could see where they end up beyond college sports.