Novella triptych released in single, fantastic volume
Everyone has heard of the Gameshouse. But few know all its secrets…
It is the place where fortunes can be made and lost through chess, backgammon — every game under the sun.
But those whom fortune favors may be invited to compete in the higher league… a league where the games played are of politics and empires, of economics and kings. It is a league where Capture the Castle involves real castles, where hide and seek takes place on the scale of a continent.
Among those worthy of competing in the higher league, three unusually talented contestants play for the highest stakes of all…
I first read The Gameshouse when it was released as three novella eBooks: The Serpent, The Thief and The Master. I loved the story then, and it has stuck with me ever since. The release of the omnibus edition gave me an excuse to give it a second look. This is a really good story, and just more evidence of why Claire North is a must-read author.
In The Serpent, readers are introduced to the eponymous Gameshouse. We meet Thene, a woman trapped in a forced marriage to a drunk. She’s an interesting guide to this world, albeit one who feels a bit cold and aloof (understandable, when we learn of her past). That is, until she becomes more involved in the Gameshouse…
After frequenting the Gameshouse, and engaging in “standard” contests and games for a while, she is approached by the umpires, who invite her to play in the “higher league”. The games are no longer confined to boards and table-tops. Now, Thene finds herself playing a game in which the city of Venice is the board, and its inhabitants are the pieces. Each player is given a selection of pieces — people who are indebted to the Gameshouse for some reason or another. The first part — what was the novella The Serpent — serves as an excellent introduction to this world, and shows readers how it all operates.
The story then jumps to inter-War Thailand, in The Thief. North really brings this setting to life (I was born in Bangkok, so I’m always interested to see how people recreate the city on the page, even in times when I have no way of knowing first-hand). I think North has done a wonderful job of recreating such a rich and colourful city, and also does justice to the rural/wilder regions of the country.
Our player/protagonist, Remy Burke, is more established and experienced than Thene in Venice, with centuries of experience. A drunken evening has led him into a game of hide-and-seek against an extremely determined rival. After fleeing the city, Remy struggles through the jungle, occasionally benefiting from the kindness of strangers, while at other times suffering betrayal and setbacks. Remy is resourceful and a quite ingenious player of the Game. (I gave a little cheer at the end of this part.)
The final part, The Master, which I won’t dwell on in order to avoid spoilers, brings the story up-to-date, and builds into a massive confrontation between players. The Gameshouse has developed and evolved with the times, and expanded the scope of the individual games and wagers available to players. It’s such an interesting and fascinating concept. In theory, there is also great scope for writing multiple stories within this world and setting. I understand why North hasn’t written any more, but I would certainly snap up another story or two set within the rules of the Gameshouse.
Over the course of the book, we get a number of glimpses at the Gameshouse’s history and origins, and the occasional nod to what might be to come. After finishing, readers will notice things that maybe seemed disconnected from events come into clearer focus. It’s quite the twisting tale, and I think North pulls it off with great style.
Also: that ending! Fantastic.
In each of North’s novels has displayed the author’s incredible gift for characterization, dialogue and exposition. Everyone we meet in her novels is three-dimensional, whether primary protagonists or peripheral characters. The Gameshouse has a good sized cast, and they’re all fascinating. The plot across this book is tight and focused; the atmosphere and environs colourfully described and brought to life, while never in excess or through over-long info-dumps.
If you haven’t read anything by North yet, then I would strongly recommend you do so. She is easily one of the best writers working today. The Gameshouse would be a great place to start, as would her superb debut, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.
Very highly recommended.