Book Review: Playing For Keeps, by Mur Lafferty

I love Mur Lafferty. Her podcast, I Should Be Writing, was one of the first I ever downloaded and it hasn’t left my mp3 player(s) since. She’s come a long way, from a self-described “wannabe fiction writer” to full-blown published novelist.

So is she any good at practicing what she preaches?

Let me get the negatives out of the way first. This is Mur’s first novel, published with the small new publisher Swarm Press, and the lack of experience shows. Nearly every chapter is full of one or more typos, grammatical errors, or otherwise awkward prose. Jarring continuity errors crop up (e.g., there is off-hand mention of demons long before they actually show up), and characters often do inexplicably random things. A lack of polish usually doesn’t get in a way of a good story, but here it is so rampant that it can obfuscate the plot and kill any sense of immersion. One careful proof reader could have fixed this. They should hire a teaching assistant, like me; I brutally criticize writing for a living, and do it for almost no money.

But pushing past technical issues, there is a creative and exciting story here. Playing For Keeps tells the story of the superpowered people between superheroes and supervillains. They’re not good nor evil, just ordinary, and while they can do extraordinary things, their abilities are so specific as to be useless outside of a single purpose (e.g., a cook who can predict anyone’s perfect meal; an old man who can take off and regrow one leg). The highlight of the novel is seeing how, when put to the test, even seemingly shitty powers can be jiggered to do incredible things. The plot moves at a Flash-like pace, with twists and turns happening at the end of nearly every short chapter, making it a quick, fun read that’s hard to put down.

Playing For Keeps is a flawed, awkward mess, but it’s very hard to not have a great time reading it. With unlimited sequel and spinoff potential, and hopefully a bit more time and experience for polishing up future endeavors, I can’t wait to see more from Mur Lafferty and the Playing For Keeps universe.


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