Quick Review: VANISHING GAMES by Roger Hobbs (Corgi/Knopf)

HobbsR-G2-VanishingGamesUKPBThe Ghostman returns, to save his mentor…

I work alone. 

I may be the best thief in the world but no one will ever know a single thing about me. Well, almost no one. 

A lifetime ago I had a mentor, Angela. She taught me how to be a criminal, how to run a heist. 

And now, six years after she vanished and left me high and dry on a job in Kuala Lumpur, she’s sent me an SOS.

Or at least I think it’s her. If it is, then I’ve got to go. I owe her that much.

So soon I’ll be on a plane to Macau, either to see a friend or walk into a trap. Or both. 

But that’s the way I like it. Sometimes the only thing that makes me happy is risking my life. 

Time to go.

I very much enjoyed Roger Hobbs’s debut, Ghostman: it was fast-paced, entertaining and offered an interesting twist on the international, high-tech thief genre. In this sequel, Hobbs gives readers more of the same. For the main, this is a very good thing, and I blitzed through Vanishing Games. Continue reading

Review: THE GAMESHOUSE Trilogy by Claire North (Orbit)

A magnificent, linked trilogy of novellas

It’s tricky to review these novellas without spoiling events across the series. So, I’m keeping these as brief as possible, which has meant the reviews are a bit more vague than I would usually like. Really, the take away should be: this is a fantastic series, and a must read.

NorthC-GH1-SerpentTHE SERPENT

In seventeenth century Venice exists a mysterious establishment known only as the Gameshouse.

There, fortunes are made and fortunes are broken over games of chess, backgammon and every other game under the sun.

But those whom fortune favours 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 a scale as big as the British Isles.

Not everyone proves worthy of competing in the higher league. But one woman who is about to play may just exceed everyone’s expectations.

Though she must always remember: the higher the stakes, the more deadly the rules…

In this first novella, North introduces us to the Gameshouse, and offers a relatively small-scale game. We follow Thene, a woman trapped in an enforced marriage to a drunken waster. After a while frequenting the Gameshouse, and engaging in “standard” contests and games, she is eventually approached by the umpires and invited to play in the higher league. Rather than duelling with an opponent over a chessboard or other table-top game, Venice itself becomes the board, and its inhabitants the pieces. Each player is given a selection of… well, I suppose you could call them “trumps”: specific pieces who have become indebted to the Gameshouse for a variety of reasons.

The Serpent is a quick read, and follows an interesting protagonist — the story is told somewhat from afar, as if we are watching Thene’s play and the directed actions of her pieces from the audience. She’s an interesting character, made cold and emotionless by her difficult childhood and unhappy marriage, but given new life and focus by the Gameshouse.

Through Thene’s first higher league game, we learn of the various ways the Gameshouse operates, how the pieces work, and so forth. Along the way, North also gives us a few hints about the institution’s history — which, as it turned out, would be further elaborated on in the second and third books. The author never info-dumps on the reader, though, much to my relief. The momentum of the story never lets up, while never being rushed.

It’s an excellent introduction to the series. The only weird decision was using em-dashes to indicate dialogue, rather than quotation marks. The only other time I’ve seen this used was in Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century.

*

NorthC-GH2-ThiefTHE THIEF

The Gameshouse is an unusual institution.

Many know it as the place where fortunes can be made and lost though games of Chess, Backgammon — every game under the sun.

But a select few, who are picked to compete in the higher league, know that some games are played for higher stakes — those of politics and empires, of economics and kings…

In 1930s Bangkok, one higher league player has just been challenged to a game of hide and seek. The board is all of Thailand — and the seeker will use any means possible to hunt down his quarry — be it police, government, strangers or even spies…

This second instalment was even better than the first. Pre-Second World War Thailand is brought wonderfully to life on the page — since I was born there, I’m always interested to see how people recreate the city on the page (at any time), and I think North did a wonderful job of creating such a rich and colourful city, and also doing the wilder regions of the country justice.

Our player is a more established player, with centuries of experience. A drunken evening has led him into a game of hide-and-seek against a rival with an unusual determination. As he first flees the city, Remy Burke ends up struggling through the jungle, occasionally benefiting form the kindness of strangers and sometimes suffering betrayals. North does a great job of showing us how difficult Remy’s ordeal is. The two sides of the game are interesting and very different. The solution and tactics of our hero are ingenious, and I gave a little cheer at the end.

We get a little bit more detail of the Gameshouse’s history and origins, while also hints at possible future events. Given a similar event in both The Serpent and The Thief, we’re led to clues for The Master, and after finishing this one I couldn’t wait to see how North brought it all together: the moments that seemed disconnected from the specific games in Venice and Thailand. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait, and dove right into the final novella…

*

NorthC-GH3-MasterTHE MASTER

The Gamehouse is an unusual institution. 

Many know it as the place where fortunes can be made and lost though games of Chess, Backgammon — every game under the sun.

But a select few, who are picked to compete in the higher league, know that some games are played for higher stakes — those of politics and empires, of economics and kings…

And now, the ultimate player is about to step forward.

The final novella in the series brings us up to the present, as the ultimate player decides its time to start the Great Game. The player in question (who I shall not name, in order to not spoil things), has appeared in each of the previous novellas. The Gameshouse has continued to evolve with the times, adjusting what it has to offer with each new generation and era in which it endures.

“New games too: Cluedo, Settlers of Catan, Age of Empires, Mario Kart, Mortal Kombat Whatever fought between a shrieking bishop and a deputy mayor. A judge, a police commissioner, a gangster, a congressman, a chief of staff, a general, a consulting doctor, a research fellow, a professor, a hit-man, a pharmaceutical king, an oil magnate, a seller of used cars and cheap cocaine – all the men and women who think they are someone, could be something more – they all come here as they have come through the centuries, across the world.”

As with the previous two books, The Master is a tightly-plotted action thriller, as the Great Game is writ larger than ever: where first it was a city, then a country, now it is the whole world, and North makes full use of the effectively-limitless resources the two players have to hand. The game, chess, is quite insane, as everything from the NSA and MI5 to entire national armies are deployed, not to mention hackers and assassins. It’s over-the-top, yes, but it never feels as ridiculous as it might in another author’s hands. I was completely hooked, and blitzed through. The ending was powerful, and only gradually was the truth revealed. The way one previous character is used was a great surprise. A superb conclusion to the trilogy. Absolutely magnificent.

Across all three novellas, North continues to show an incredibly gift for writing characters, dialogue and exposition: the people are three-dimensional, even when minor characters; the plots are tight and focused; the atmosphere and environs colourfully described and brought to life, while never in excess.

I’ve said it before in two previous reviews, but Claire North is fast becoming my favourite author.

Absolutely recommended to all, this are must-reads.

*

The SerpentThe Thief and The Master are all out now, published in the UK and US by Orbit Books.

Also on CR: Reviews of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch

Excerpt: THIEF by Mark Sullivan (Minotaur/Quercus)

SullivanM-RM2-ThiefUSCo-author of Private Berlin and Private L.A. with James Patterson, Mark Sullivan‘s next novel is THIEF. Due to be published on December 16th, 2014 (next week), by Minotaur. It is the third novel featuring Robin Monarch — following Rogue and Outlaw. The series is published in the UK by Quercus Books, and will publish Thief on December 31st in eBook, and January 1st in print. For more details on the series, scroll down to the end of the post.

Here is the synopsis for Thief:

Robin Monarch is a man with a complicated past and dangerous present.  He’s been a soldier, a CIA agent, a freelance operative but first and foremost, Robin Monarch is a thief of the highest order. Orphaned at twelve, Monarch originally stole for survival, then he stole for his friends and cohorts, now he steals to order, and to give back to the to the woman who saved his life many years ago.

With the help of his team, Monarch breaks into the legendary Christmas party of Beau Arsenault, a shady investor and behind-the-scenes player at the very highest levels of power politics. Arsenault is not above bending or breaking the rules if there’s illicit profit to be made. Monarch has decided that those illicit profits will be better used to take care of orphans and street kids. Using the party as cover to break into Arsenault’s secret vaults, Monarch comes away with two unexpected things. One is a bullet — he gets shot when he’s caught trying to escape with tens of millions of negotiable instruments. The second is a lead on what might be his most audacious exploit ever. A previously undiscovered tribe in South America may well have the secret to the most sought after knowledge in history — that of eternal life. And Robin Monarch must use all his skills — as an operative, as a thief — to keep this secret from falling into the worst possible hands.

And now, a (lengthy) excerpt… Continue reading