Skip to Main Content

About The Book

A thrilling middle grade fantasy about a girl who must participate in a deadly game with a ragtag team of players to save her grandfather from a terrible fate—perfect for fans of James Riley and Shannon Messenger!

In the opulent, sinking city of Dantessa, the Great Game rules all. Pia Paro believes that so long as you follow the rules, you always have a chance at winning. But after her beloved Gramps is sentenced to a life of servitude, Pia accepts a dangerous offer and joins a team of players seeking to win the most perilous game of all: Noctis.

The Seafoxes—Pia’s new teammates—are unlike anyone she’s ever met. There’s brash, bold Carlo; macabre Serafina; kindhearted Pasquale; and their dashing ringleader, Vittoria. Each has their own reason for playing, and soon, Pia begins to question all her long-held beliefs. Maybe the rules Pia once trusted to lift her up have only been keeping her—and thousands of others like her—down.

As she struggles with these revelations, Pia must survive a gauntlet of clockwork soldiers, perilous underwater adventures, and even a game against Death herself. But with Pia’s grandfather’s life at stake, Pia must finally decide whether she’s brave enough to not just break the rules, but to change the very nature of the Game.


Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
ACCORDING TO THE BOOK OF PLAY, there were 8,684 officially recognized games. That should have been plenty, especially for a tiny little island like Dantessa, so small you might think it was a mistake, a blotch of ink fallen from the pen of a particularly sloppy cartographer.

But I’d been trotting after Gramps for the last hour, back and forth along every mildew-streaked alley in the Damps, up and down a dozen bridges, crisscrossing the maze of canals that served as our streets. It was nearly seven o’clock, and we still hadn’t won the five measly segna we needed to buy our supper.

A ramshackle collection of pushcarts and lopsided tables jammed the narrow quay, hunched under the queasy greenish glow of the fishlamps floating above. Brighter flames flared here and there from the braziers where snack-sellers sold twisted paper cones of roasted chestnuts and smoky skewers of octopus. My belly rumbled as I eyed them longingly. “One segna each, love,” sang out the woman tending the skewers.

Without meaning to, my fingers clenched the pouch at my belt, feeling the single segna resting there.

“Just a little longer, Pia.”

I jerked my gaze away from the food stands, feeling a stab of guilt. Gramps was watching me from the next bridge, tufted gray brows arched over his mild blue eyes. I hastened to catch up, hopping over the puddles of dank water that had begun to eat up the flagstones. There was a reason this part of the city was called the Damps. In a few hours, the entire district would be flooded by high tide.

“I just need to win few rounds of queekers with Coy Angelo and we’ll have full bellies again,” said Gramps bracingly. But there was a flicker of something else at the corner of his smile. Something he was trying to hide. Doubt?

I smothered the unworthy thought. Gramps had taken care of me my entire life. I loved him more than anything in the world, and not just because he was the only family I had left. I loved him because he laughed so delightedly at his own jokes that he could never finish telling them. Because he always stopped to pet any cat or dog he met. Because he hummed sad songs when he was happy, and happy songs when he was sad.

And because he loved games as much as I did. He was the one who had first taught me to play snatch-it, my soft, stubby little baby hands grabbing for his strong, leathery fingers. As I got older, he’d taught me queekers, crackerjack, abraxus, and a hundred other games of wit and grace. He’d shown me the joy of spotting the perfect move, the thrill of unraveling a skein of possibilities and finding the path to victory.

My stomach fluttered. “Or I could play,” I offered. “I’m a player too now.”

I held out my hand, twitching my fingers. A glowing number shimmered into the dark night air just above my palm, as if drawn by some invisible scribe with a gilt-tipped brush:


I lifted my chin. Standing signified your ranking as a player within the Great Game, from 1 to 100. High was good. Low was bad. Multiple people could share the same standing, and most folk fell in the middle, like me. If my standing ever fell to zero, I would no longer be a player, but a pawn. I’d have little choice but to work for one of the great player families, maybe as a housemaid, or a scullion. Honest work, but hard. Still, it was better than the alternative: getting sent to the Pawn Isles. I’d never been there myself, but I’d heard stories about the hours of work in the fields. The chill. The damp.

Worst of all, if I became a pawn, I would never play another game. And that was what terrified me most.

Games were my life. There was nothing like falling into a game, letting my mind spin out all the possibilities, sporting in a sea of strategy like spotted dolphins in the wake of a swift trade ship. Aside from my grandfather, gaming was the only thing in this world I still loved. Okay, well, and maybe those cheese dumplings from that tiny shop in the Masks District.

But 45 was a perfectly respectable ranking, especially given that I’d only been a player since my twelfth birthday, six months ago. And that standing could be even higher if Gramps let me play more often. I was good—I knew my own worth and wasn’t ashamed of it. Gramps knew it too. “I can do it,” I said. “I want to help.”

For a moment, his expression softened. “You’re a good girl, Pia. And a clever player. But this is my responsibility. You’re only twelve.” He reached out, gently closing my fingers over my palm, banishing the glimmering gamescript. Then he continued, crossing the bridge to a triangular plaza lined with tea shops and gaming clubs.

I followed, searching for an argument to convince him. The posters plastered over the nearby walls gave me one. “I’m old enough to play noctis,” I said, pointing.

Gramps frowned at the image of a bright blue mermaid, the elaborate silver script along the top of the sign proclaiming the team’s name: THE SIRENS. There were others: a leaping dolphin, a proud storm-eagle. The posters had been blossoming all over the city, what with the tournament starting in just a week.

Dantessa was an island-city of games, but none was more famous than noctis. It was the reason our city had survived the great plague three centuries ago: the swelling pustules that brought fever and aches, then finally a sleep that most never woke from. The prince of Dantessa had challenged Death herself to a game, with the prince’s own life as the stakes. If the prince won, the city would be spared the ravages of the disease. If she lost, Death would take her.

The prince won. Dantessa was saved. Now, every year, a game of noctis was played in the Grand Arena, to honor the original bargain and keep Dantessa safe. And according to The Book of Play, all players in the tournament must be youths no older than sixteen, the age the prince—known now as the Last Prince—had been when she challenged Death.

If I was old enough to face Lady Death herself, surely I was old enough to challenge Coy Angelo to a game of queekers.

But Gramps was already turning his back on the poster, shaking his head. “That’s different.”

I didn’t need to ask what he meant. We’d watched the noctis tournaments together every year since I was a little girl, cheering for our favorite teams, shivering in anticipation to see what the arena would hold. The challenges were never the same twice. One year, the teams might face each other in a forest full of slithering, poisonous vines. Another year, the arena might be an enormous pool full of exploding marshmallows. To win noctis, a player had to be clever, quick, ready for anything. And rich enough to afford the entry stakes.

I was all those things, except one.

Tearing my gaze from the sign, I hastened to follow Gramps over to the edge of the nearby canal. Several dark, slim gondolas were drawn up along the quay. The air above them sparkled with gamescript. Gramps was already bent beside the boat at the far end, speaking with the man perched at its prow.

“Luciano Paro!” Coy Angelo boomed out, grinning. “Looking for a game of queekers? Yes? Come aboard then.”

I grimaced as Gramps clambered into the gondola. It bothered me, how Angelo insisted that they play on his boat. It was a brazen ploy to get around the gaming tax that would have applied if he were accepting challenges on dry land. But Gramps liked Angelo, so I bit my tongue, summoning a tight smile when his gaze fell on me.

“Ah, and is this little Pia? All grown-up and a full player now? I suppose you’ll be the one challenging me next, eh?”

“No,” said Gramps, giving me a stern look. “Not tonight.”

Angelo shrugged. “Well then. Five segna?” He drew a handful of golden coins from the pocket of his worn woolen doublet.

Gramps coughed, pulling out the only three coins he had left. “How about three?”

I held my breath. Angelo nodded.

Gamescript unfurled in the air above them. The coins vanished from both their hands, as the magic took hold.

Challenge Accepted. Stakes: 3 Segna.

And that was it. Play had begun and the magic of the Great Game had awoken. Gramps leaned over the battered board laid out across one of the empty gondola seats and made his first move. Queekers was a bit like checkers, but one of the pieces on each side was special, chiseled with the image of a mouse. There were special rules for the so-called queeker, allowing it a wider range of moves.

I watched, trying to ignore the anxious ball of slithering eels tangled in my belly. Gramps was smart. He’d won hundreds of games. Just… not recently.

My eyes began to sting. I didn’t want to look away. It was silly, I knew, to think that just watching could somehow help. It wasn’t my hand moving the pieces. It wasn’t my eyes hunting for openings. But I had to do something. If Gramps lost this game, we were in trouble. All we’d have left was my single segna. We’d go to sleep with empty bellies. Or worse, Gramps would swear he wasn’t hungry and make me eat the last bowl of bean soup we had in the pot back home.

No. He was going to win. Maybe we’d celebrate with his favorite pepper-fried shrimp, or my favorite cheesy dumplings. Or both! I closed my eyes, imagining the salty, oozy deliciousness.

Coy Angelo’s faint indrawn breath jerked me back to chill, uncheesy reality. Was it a sound of triumph or despair? His face told me nothing, round and milky-pale, lips a thin line.

Quickly, I scanned the board. A quiver of excitement rippled up my spine. Gramps was winning! He still had three pieces left, while Angelo had only his queeker and one other piece. All Gramps needed to do was take Angelo’s queeker and the game would be over. He’d win, and we’d have full bellies for another day.

The winning move was clear. So why was Gramps hesitating? He bent over the board, his long nose almost brushing the pieces as he squinted. His eyes had been getting even worse lately. He needed spectacles, but they were expensive. Next year, he always said when I asked. Once we’ve saved up some extra segna.

I opened my mouth. Then snapped it shut so sharply, I almost bit my tongue. I couldn’t interfere. It was against the rules. If I said anything, I risked forcing Gramps to forfeit. But surely Gramps wouldn’t—

“Hah!” Gramps jumped one of his pieces over Angelo’s. “Got your queeker!”

Oh no.

Angelo chortled, hopping the remaining piece—the one that was actually his queeker—over Gramps’s, devouring it.

Gamescript appeared, proclaiming WINNER in large golden letters, directly above Angelo’s head. The word burst apart like fireworks, falling in a shower of segna. Angelo thrust out his hands, catching the coins and laughing. “Better pay closer attention next time, old friend.” He leaned back, tucking his winnings away, wearing an indulgent smile. “Care for a rematch?”

Gramps looked as if someone had just force-fed him sea slugs. He fumbled the discarded pieces back onto the board and shoved it toward Angelo. “No,” he said, his voice sounding storm-tossed and tattered. “No, thank you. We’d better be going.”

Gramps slipped as he clambered out from the gondola, but when I tried to steady him, he flinched. A stab of guilt pierced me, even though I’d done nothing. Nothing except witness his loss.

As soon as he was back on solid ground, he set off, back the way we’d come. I swallowed the enormous lump in my throat and ran after him. “Gramps. Gramps, it’s okay. I’ve still got one segna. We can find something else. If I can get into a round of touch-not, I bet I can triple it.”

Ahead of me, Gramps had slowed. Then halted. His head was bowed, his shoulders hunched. I was suddenly horribly afraid that he might be weeping. How could I make this better?

“You’re the one who taught me not to give up,” I said. “?‘Every loss is a chance to learn something,’ right?”

I took a step closer. A faint golden light gilded his cheek and glinted in his thatch of curly gray hair.

Another step. My breath caught. He held one hand in front of him, just like I’d done earlier. But the golden number floating over his palm was only a single horrible digit:


“Gramps!” I couldn’t help the note of panic in my voice. “Gramps. Is that really your standing?” I blinked, then squinted, praying I’d misread it. Even 11 would be better than 1.

The number didn’t change.

Gramps clenched his fist, and the baleful number vanished. I could still feel it, the weight of it hanging over us both. How had his standing gotten so low? I knew Gramps hadn’t been playing as often. I knew he had been losing more games. But I’d never realized he was in this sort of danger.

I should have. I should have known. “Your eyes are getting worse,” I said. “Aren’t they?”

That’s why he’d lost. Because he hadn’t been able to see the markings. He hadn’t realized which of Angelo’s pieces was the queeker. Pox! If only we’d managed to get him some proper spectacles!

Gramps drew in a long breath. Let it out. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll get through this, Pia. You’re smart. You’re a good player. You’re better than me.” He gave a small, helpless laugh.

“You mean we’ll get through this.” I tried to find a smile for Gramps, and for myself. “We’ll find a way to boost your score. We’ve got time, Gramps. You’re still in the game.”

He met my smile with one of his own. A true one, but tinged with a sadness that hurt even worse than seeing that cursed 1. He reached out, ruffling my dark brown hair.

“You’re a good girl. But… I don’t think I am. Not if I can’t tell which piece is the queeker. I tried, Pia.” His voice cracked on my name.

It wasn’t fair. Gramps was smart. He’d beaten me at queekers hundreds of times. If he had proper spectacles, he’d win again. But without them…

“You’re playing a harder game than folks who don’t need glasses,” I said finally.

“True,” he agreed. “But the Great Game has never been fair.”

“Yes, it is. It has to be!” The words leapt from somewhere deep inside. It felt as if my entire world was slipping from my grasp, about to shatter against the hard ground. If Gramps got taken as a pawn, I might never see him again. Some pawns stayed in the city, working in the fishing fleet, or doing laundry, or any of the hundreds of other jobs that no player would deign to do. But others were sent away, to the Pawn Isles, three small islands in the waters beyond the lagoon, mostly farmland, which provided much of the produce for Dantessa proper.


“We can fix this,” I said firmly. “You can play me. Right now.” I dug in my pouch, pulling out my single segna. “We can play slaptrap. We don’t even need a board for that.”

He waved my suggestion away. “I’m too tired. And you’re too good now, Pia. You’ll win.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but the words stuck there. He was right. I was good. I would probably win. Unless…

Unless I didn’t. Something twisted in my stomach. Could I do that? I’d never cheated before. Cheating went against everything the Great Game stood for. But if I deliberately made a mistake, was that cheating?

“I won’t consent,” said Gramps. “Not to any game of consequence with you, Pia. I won’t have my own granddaughter be the one who takes me out of play. I don’t want you to have to live with that.”

Relief untwisted my belly, leaving only a shadow of guilt. I wasn’t certain if it was guilt for thinking of throwing the game, or guilt that I hadn’t tried harder to make Gramps let me.

But there was another option. One that didn’t require breaking or bending any rules. “If I can earn enough segna, I can buy up your standing at the tally-house.”

The rate of exchange was terrible. I’d need ten segna for a single point of standing. It got more expensive, the higher your standing, so folk in our part of town used it only as a last resort. It made more sense to save your segna for play. But Gramps couldn’t play right now.

“No.” He shook his head. “There are too many dangerous games out there, Pia. Too many players just waiting to take advantage of you if they know you’re desperate.”

I stood there, miserable, quivering with the need to do something.

Gramps took my hand in his own, thin and wrinkled, but still strong. “You’re a good girl, Pia. Too good. I know you want the world to be fair. For the rules to save us. I wish the world was actually like that.”

It was, though. Gramps had believed it once, and he would again. I just had to prove it.

About The Author

Photograph (c) Paul Van Der Werf

Deva Fagan writes fantasy and science fiction for all ages. When she’s not writing, she spends her time reading, doing geometry, playing video games, hiking, and drinking copious amounts of tea. She is the author of several books, including Rival MagicNightingaleThe Mirrorwood, and A Game of Noctis. She lives in Maine with her husband and their dog. You can find her online at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (July 17, 2024)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665930192
  • Ages: 10 - 99

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

* “Dantessa’s Venetian-inspired world of canals and palazzos is intricately built, lush with sensory detail, and a vividly imagined magical gaming culture. Pia is a resilient, brave, and empathetic character. . . . Both the lead and supporting characters are distinct and intriguing, and the action is expertly paced. Diversity in skin tone and sexuality is casually woven into the story. A richly creative magical adventure about challenging an unfair status quo.”

– Kirkus Reviews, starred review, 2/15/24

* “The transporting novel instantly enthralls, casting readers headlong into a world of impressively well-developed games and mythology. Pia shines as a phenomenal protagonist willing to examine long-held convictions as truths come to light, and the diverse supporting cast is equally as enjoyable, including a delightfully disarming Lady Death. A captivating consideration of what it means to be ‘good’ in an unjust world.”

– Booklist, starred review, 2/15/24

* "Fagan skillfully blends adventure and team-based competitions, set against a memorable, Mediterranean-leaning environment and populated by eclectic characters described as having varying skin tones. Clever, warmhearted, fast-paced, and energetic, this tale has much to offer."

– Publishers Weekly, starred review, 1/15/24

"An exciting, fast-moving story for fans who like clever, strong-willed heroines battling enormous odds."

– School Library Journal, March 2024 Issue

"Inventive and unexpected, this creative fantasy will entertain readers while striking deeper notes of honor and teamwork in the face of peril."

– Horn Book, March/April 2024 Issue

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Deva Fagan