If you love stories where the stakes are high and the games are twisty, then The Gameshouse is where you need to go…
Book: The Gameshouse by Claire North
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
This book is actually three novellas, which were initially published as The Serpent, The Thief and The Master. Although each of them deals with a particular game in the Gameshouse, they all have a different feel, and in some cases, are set hundreds of years apart. There are common threads running through them all, and you really feel as though you’re getting a few glimpses into a society with a long-running and convoluted history. The Gameshouse sounds like a simple gambling establishment – people can play card games and chess, and win and lose money on their bets, but behind the guarded silver doors, there’s a whole other world of strategy games: games where you can play with the fate of nations. Running through everything are hints that there is something going on behind the scenes at the Gameshouse.
The first story focuses on Thene, a woman living in 17th century Venice with a husband who is useless at best and terrible at worst, who is smart and subtle and totally wasted picking up after him. She comes to the Gameshouse with her husband, and as he loses all the wealth she brought to the marriage and then some, she is tempted to play by a man named Silver. Soon she is embroiled in a game of kings, where she must control the outcome of the upcoming selection of a new inquisitor to the Supreme Tribunal. Her game pieces are people who owe debts to the Gameshouse; her board is the entire city of Venice, and then some. The writing here is dreamy and fluid. Speech is denoted between dashes, not speechmarks. It’s heavy on the imagery and not so keen on the easily comprehensible, so it definitely takes a while to get into, but if you’re a fan of magical realism and that sticky, treacly sort of aesthetic prose, you’ll love this. That’s not so much my thing, but this still ended up being my favourite section of the book, because Thene was an excellent character, and I love this kind of political maneuvering.
Part two focuses on Remy Burke, a man in 1930s Thailand who made a stupid bet with another player of the Gameshouse – that he could win a game of hide and seek. Of course, in this world of high-stakes, fantastical gambling, this game takes place across the entire country, with each player able to call on other people who owe debts to help find their quarry. While it has a neat twist, the vibe of this one is more Bond film than Machiavellian, and it was not nearly as much fun for me (though I did appreciate the return of the speechmarks!).
Part three was honestly my least favourite, which was disappointing, because it focuses on Silver, who appears in the other parts as a mysterious master player. He takes on the Gamesmaster in a battle for control of the Gameshouse, and this time, the stage is the entire world. It’s chess, but using entire governments and countries as pieces, with Silver and the Gamesmaster as the kings to be checked. It’s a wider board, and also higher stakes, as the fate of the Gameshouse itself is to be decided – so different from the extremely niche, local politicking of the first section. The trouble is, by widening the lens so far, I felt that we lost a lot of the tiny details that made the first part, Thene’s story, so beautiful. Perhaps also I’m just much less interested in modern-day warfare than Venetian machinations. Silver was an intriguing character when he hovered at the edges of the previous stories, nudging things into place for a plan as yet unknown, so I was sad that I didn’t really love his story. If he’d had the same treatment as Thene, I would have been thrilled.
It’s very, very hard to review this book as a whole, because it’s astonishingly clever, and the worldbuilding is wonderful, but I feel that the concept was dragged a little too thin by the ever-expanding focus, and some characters are stronger than others. There are going to be people who hate the first section and love the second two, and there are going to be people who think the whole thing is fantastic – it is, and I’m sorry for the pun, a total gamble. But it’s a risk worth taking, as there’s a lot of thought-provoking stuff here, and some really fascinating writing. Four out of five cats!