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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Mind Game

Hector Macdonald

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To purchase The Mind Game

Title: The Mind Game
Author: Hector Macdonald
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 299 pages
Availability: The Mind Game - US
The Mind Game - UK
The Mind Game - Canada
Cortex - France
  • British rights to The Mind Game apparently sold for an astonishing £ 130,000, with the rights also sold in some twenty other countries even before publication
  • First published in a Dutch translation (as Het emotiespel) in 2000. First published in the UK and USA in 2001. Don't ask us, we can't explain it either.

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Our Assessment:

B- : pseudo-scientific thriller with more layers than an onion -- some nice twists but heavy-handed prose, unrealistic characters, and unlikely actions make for a less than fully satisfying read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 10/2/2001 Maxim Jakubowski
The Independent A 16/2/2001 Peter Whittaker
The NY Times Book Rev. C 1/4/2001 Emily White
The Observer B+ 11/2/2001 Robert Potts
TLS . 2/2/2001 Keith Miller

  From the Reviews:
  • "A splendidly engineered tale of deceit and illusion, this is undoubtedly heading for the bestseller lists." - Maxim Jakubowski, The Guardian

  • "This switchback journey of duplicity is orchestrated with skill and brio; and the denouement is both unexpected and teasingly ambiguous. Macdonald, who studied with Richard Dawkins, knows his subject inside-out: the narrative is peppered with fascinating insights into the far reaches of game theory and the ethical and political implications of emotion control." - Peter Whittaker, The Independent

  • "(W)eak character development and structural inconsistencies derail the plot's forward motion. While Macdonald's prose has the breathless quality of a good thriller, the thrills themselves never quite seem to arrive." - Emily White, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Macdonald does a fine job with his plot, though it occasionally flirts with over-contrivance and the characters are developed no further than is necessary for their functions. The shocks he establishes, and the gradual harrowing of his protagonist, do make for a genuinely compulsive read. As a thriller, The Mind Game should more than satisfy fans of the genre." - Robert Potts, The Observer

  • "It is a book in which the stock tropes of the thriller are deployed with an almost psychotic frequency. (...) But the plot quickly folds into more false endings than an Otis Redding number, in what seems to me a clear violation of the law of diminishing returns. And as for all the other stuff which writers are supposed to be able to do -- character, style, the Everton stuff -- nothing makes much of an impression." - Keith Miller, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Hector Macdonald's The Mind Game certainly lives up to its title. There are mind games galore throughout the novel, and Macdonald also plays one with the reader. There is some fun to be had here: this book has more layers than an onion -- but it is the writing that will leave the reader close to tears. Macdonald tries hard, but the writing is amateurish and formulaic, and the characterization often ridiculous, making for some hard going for much of the way.
       Fortunately, there are enough twists and turns and reversals to lurch the reader out of the occasional reading-stupor. Nothing is quite as it seems, it would seem -- or would it ? Yes, Macdonald's plot is not half bad. (It's not half good, either, as it turns out, since he can't quite sustain the promise, but it's a game effort.)
       The Mind Game is narrated by young Oxonian Benjamin (Ben) Ashurst. His tutor is the eminent though controversial Dr. James Fieldhead, an experimental biologist who one character (who should know) calls "probably the best empirical researcher alive today". Dr. Fieldhead is doing research in human emotions, trying to find a scientific way of measuring them (i.e. find out what is going on in the brain when we have an emotional reaction). A company has approached him with a "gismo" that is "the world's first ever miniature emotion sensor". It has been tested, but not really well, and Dr. Fieldhead has been asked to test it as well -- in large part also because his name and reputation would give credibility to the project (credibility that for some inexplicable reason the American company that developed the device apparently doesn't quite have). That's where Ben comes in: Dr. Fieldhead proposes using him as a guinea pig. The device is to be implanted at the back of his head, he is to be sent off to Kenya to enjoy a nice holiday, and he is to keep track of his changing emotions so that the results can be correlated with the readings from the machine.
       The science here is a bit fuzzy, but most of the simplifications are tolerable. The "experiment", however, is even fuzzier and Ben (like the reader) should be wondering what kind of scientific experiment this is. The difficulty of correlating the readings from the machine and what Ben's perceived emotional response is at any given moment is never properly addressed. Yes, he is supposed to note down what he is feeling. And yes, the results are pretty clear when he is feeling abject terror or complete elation -- but the good stuff, the scientifically useful stuff, is all that everyday minor emotion, the mix of happiness and frustration and sadness and melancholy and expectation that is constantly shifting with every moment. Macdonald never gives any vaguely satisfactory explanation of how these subtle emotions will be recorded and correlated with the data from the gismo -- and the fact that Ben doesn't even worry about this issue makes one immediately doubt his reliability (as well as the competence of the admission committee that allowed him to enter Oxford). Given the quick and extreme changes of emotion that just reading this book elicits -- from amusement to frustration (lots of that) to surprise (a lot of that too) to horror to annoyance -- Macdonald could have at least made the experiment a bit more plausible (or, perhaps, just slightly less ambitious).
       From the beginning this is a book of games -- mind games, mostly. The book opens with a typical college party, with nasty students drinking too much and playing nasty mind games. The reader is introduced to Ben's circle of friends, and to the two women who will figure prominently in the novel: the hapless Jenni and the siren Cara. Unfortunately, neither of them is in the least a convincing figure: Jenni is too tragically pathetic, Cara too much of a super-seductress. Both are little more than boyish fantasy-figures -- and Ben's stock does not rise when he falls for them hook, line, and sinker.
       There are games at the party, with (melo-)dramatic but not too surprising results. And then there are Dr. Fieldhead's games. The good professor is very interested in game theory, and the famous Prisoner's Dilemma crops up repeatedly throughout the novel. (The Mind Game is, in fact, a bizarre sort of Bildungsroman cum game manual: Ben learns to play the game of life.) Dr. Fieldhead toys with Ben from the beginning, and he tells him early on:

Your mistake is to assume that every game must be a conflict. You are so concerned with winners and losers, with defecting prisoners, that you ignore a whole array of animal behaviour: straightforward, self-serving cooperation.
       It takes Ben a while to catch on to that. Similarly, he doesn't immediately follow Dr. Fieldhead's good advice:
(A)lways view interactions with others through the dispassionate lens of game theory: use backwards induction, like a chess player, to work out what action on your part will induce your opponent to behave in the way that best favours you.
       It is not quite as simple as it sounds (as even Dr. Fieldhead will learn).
       Ben agrees to take part in the emotion-measuring experiment and sets off for Kenya, accompanied by the passion-eliciting Cara. It's paradise, though there are a few shadows in the background. Political unrest (Macdonald invents a sinister Kenyan Freedom Party, as if the actual situation there were not unsettling enough) and other portents don't bode well. And Ben's emotions then get tested more than he had expected them to.
       Ben stumbles from bad situations into worse situations, and eventually even gets to play the Prisoner's Dilemma the way it is meant to be played. Building up to this Macdonald has written a pedestrian thriller with some decent local (Kenyan) colour and a couple of twists that make Ben look like the ultimate naïf (it's hard to imagine a character being more inept and gullible). Then, however, the fun begins, as Macdonald strips layer after layer away. Ben has been used and abused, in quite the most terrible fashion. The experiment, it turns out, may have only been a cover for a different sort of undertaking (which would explain the pathetic science).
       But Macdonald doesn't stop there: each time Ben has it figured out, another layer gets ripped off and the book veers 180°. Mind games everywhere. Ben has no idea which way is up and who can be trusted. All he knows is that he is being used -- very effectively, in fact, as he bounces back and forth like a ping-pong ball.
       Macdonald has some fun ideas here, and the pace of the book picks up nicely as the reader eagerly awaits the next turn of events (and Macdonald does not disappoint: the hairpin turns keep coming). Eventually, he goes too far. Unimpressive Ben is transformed into a Sherlock Holmes-Superman and figures everything out, and the ultimate answers are a bit disappointing. Ben also figures out how to play the game as he decides on what the resolution will be, and this too disappoints. Macdonald tries too hard in the end to explain everything, and the decisions made and explanations offered are not entirely satisfactory either.
       No one and nothing is quite what they seem. There is some fun to that, but it makes for puppet-characters, with the novelist jerking them (and the reader) around to do as he sees fit. Macdonald is, unfortunately, not the most accomplished of novelists, so this doesn't work out for the best.
       The characters are largely unbelievable, from larger-than-life Dr. Fieldhead and super-sexy superwoman Cara to many of the bit players. Ben himself is a decent guide through this maze of deception, but he does take the wrong step a few dozen times too often (and too conveniently) to be believable either. And his final transformation and redemption is ridiculous.
       The writing moves along at a decent clip, but too many of the episodes are larger than life. As to Macdonald's style, it is bearable but little more, veering wildly between the plodding and the overly-ambitious.
       Random annoying example: "This aircraft had been built before Da Vinci started sketching". If Ben always used such expressions this might be acceptable, but he never does. And what does this mean ? Why Da Vinci ? Because he sketched airplane-like machines ? Or, about the same aircraft: "The flight instruments looked prehistoric". Prehistoric ? Not just ancient but actually prehistoric ? From before the Stone Age maybe ? If this were Ben's usual style this could maybe pass; as is it is just more evidence that Ben is a mindless (and in all respects very unscientific) youth -- and that Macdonald is not a born (or trained) writer.

       The Mind Game is, generally, readable. There are some good ideas here, and some great (and some not so great) plot twists. It is also frustrating, reading like the first draft of a potentially really good thriller. A good editor (we would have thought: any editor) could have helped fix things up too, perhaps. For whatever reason, this version of The Mind Game is what the reading public got instead.
       Given how bad science-based fiction usually is (see, for example, Astro Teller's Exegesis (see our review), a recent example of how truly bad this sort of thing can get), The Mind Game deserves some praise. There are quite a few decent bits to it, and some good plot twists. Where it succeeds, however, it does so largely by not focussing too much on the science; in fact, the book is at its weakest (and sloppiest) when Macdonald tries to fit in the emotive-reponse theories and consequences and experiments.
       The book can't really be recommended, but those who aren't too demanding about the literary quality of the fiction they read might have some fun with it.

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The Mind Game: Reviews: Hector Macdonald: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Hector Macdonald was born in 1973.

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© 2001-2009 the complete review

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