The Gameshouse by Claire North

Orbit | 2019 (30 May) | 410p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Gameshouse by Claire North

You wouldn’t be able to find the Gameshouse if you went looking for it. But should you need it, should you have what it takes to be a player, or should you have been ruined and enslaved by it, then the Gameshouse will find you. These three novellas have now been combined into one, which is as it should be, and as a whole they build up a picture of the power of the Gameshouse, an institution that has the power to change the fate of nations and control vast numbers of lives.

In Serpent we see the effect of the game on 17th-century Venice politics. Thene has the gift of a natural player and, before she can be inducted into the highest level of the Gameshouse, she must prove herself at a game of cards. But this is no ordinary game and the cards are not at all what you’d expect. Thene must outwit three other players, each of whom has powerful cards to play. The victorious will control Venice’s government, but Thene knows this isn’t the biggest prize. In The Thief we see the power of the Gameshouse on a national level as two players compete in a game of hide and seek across Thailand. Finally, in The Master, a power struggle within the Gameshouse pits country against country, as players manipulate their most prized and most significantly placed pieces around the globe to fight a battle that only one player can win but at a devastating cost.

I’m a huge fan of Claire North’s unusual, mind-bending speculative thrillers and The Gameshouse is, I do believe, a masterpiece. The fact that it was first published in three disparate parts doesn’t matter at all. Each story is separate and distinct but each influences the others, the same characters appear in two or three of them, and the influence of the Gameshouse itself grows throughout the three parts in a kind of crescendo. It is very clever.

And so too is the prose. It does take a little while to get used to the style, particularly in The Serpent, which is influenced by the manners of 17th-century Venetian society. There are no speech marks in this section, for instance. There is also a very knowing narrative persona to get used to. In all three sections, and especially in the second, the narrator appeals to us as perhaps a fellow wise spectator and player. This did alienate me a little from events in the first part but as that story developed and my jaw dropped further and further, I was captivated. And part two, with the hide and seek, is riveting. Then it becomes much more of an adventure. Claire North does indeed play with us as the book moves between third-, second- and first-person tenses. There are little games to be enjoyed throughout.

Claire North’s writing is clever and original but it’s also very witty and, fittingly for this novel, playful. It’s a joy to read on more than one level and the pages flew through my fingers. There is also pathos. Some tragic stories can be found within. So much is gambled, sometimes on the toss of a coin, so much can be lost. Some pieces have indeed as good as lost their souls. I loved the science fiction feel of parts of this. There’s something inhuman, superhuman, alien about some of these players as they manipulate their mortal pieces, cards or pawns.

The Gameshouse presents a staggering portrait of power, astonishing the reader with the lengths to which players will pursue their games, as well as their (mostly) casual disregard for their enslaved pieces, which they manipulate, manouevre and sacrifice. This is a very, very good book, and every bit as good as the very best of Claire North’s previous books.

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