The Gameshouse by Claire North (Book Review)
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, where the games played are of politics and nations, of economics and kings. It is a contest where capture the castle involves real castles and where hide-and-seek takes place on the scale of a continent.
Among those worthy of competing in the higher leagues, three unusually talented contestants pay for the highest stakes of all.
The Gameshouse by Claire North is a delightful collection of three novellas that explore a Gameshouse that has existed for hundreds – maybe thousands – of years, and whose players determine the fate of the world.
The Serpent, set in Venice in 1610, tells us the story of Thene, a lady whose chode of a husband loses a small fortune in the Gameshouse and in doing so unwittingly gives her a chance to become a player herself. Spotted by a man named Silver, who has seen many players come and go, she is encouraged to try her hand and prove herself worthy in a game against three other new players, the winner earning admittance to the higher leagues. The election of a local politician serves nicely as the first board Thene and the readers are introduced to.
“The game is one of Kings. Within these boxes are pieces that you may deploy. Each piece is a person, somewhere in this city, who has through rash venture, wager, debt or misplaced ambition come to owe a certain something to this house. Their debt we now transfer to you to be deployed as you may. You will also find within these boxes the details of your king. There is a vacancy emerging in the Supreme Tribunal for an inquisitor in black. Four candidates of some equal strength will compete for it. Each one of you has been assigned one of these candidates-one of the Kings. The winner is he or she whose King takes the throne.”
The Serpent is a great first acquaintance to North’s world and its rules. It’s smart writing. All efficient long con-style plotting and execution with very little faffing about, and part of this is certainly down to the point of view. The reader takes on the role of an omnipresent bystander, almost like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, who is being guided by another to bear witness to the events taking place. I found this POV worked particularly well in the context of the stories as it allows us to benefit from snippets of information that help flesh out small but important characters, lets us travel wherever and whenever, and also hints at something larger taking place. A game on top of a game, if you will.
The Thief is the next book and introduces us to a new character by the name of Remy Burke who is awakened one morning with a shocking hangover and discovers that he has made a very poor drunken bet the night before. The game is Hide and Seek, the location is Thailand in 1938, the stakes are twenty years of life against a man’s memory, and the commencement time is fifteen minutes away. At a severe disadvantage, he must get his act together quickly whilst figuring out why the Gameshouse allowed such a poorly weighted bet to be placed in the first place. The Thief fleshes out several of the concepts that were touched upon in The Serpent, particularly in terms of the magic and the wagers or forfeits. Any contest requires a wager and a wager can be almost anything of value. In the lower leagues, for instance, one’s appreciation for the colour purple could be up for grabs, or the affections of the last person to love you, should that be something you wish to take from someone. Alternatively you might have a skin condition you’d love to be rid of, so one could wager it against someone else’s bad knee. In the higher leagues one might wager years of their life, allowing the more experienced and skilled players to extend their lifespan indefinitely. North does a great job at turning what is essentially a simple game into something far more complex and nuanced than I thought possible.
The Master is the final book, and takes the action and excitement up another notch as well as showing the reader just how grand the influence the Gamehouse can wield is. Silver – a player we have met in the past, sick of said influence and wary of signs of impartiality – decides it’s time to challenge the Gamesmaster. The Game is chess, the board is the entire planet and the pieces are made up of whatever personal resources the player has developed throughout the entirety of their time in the game. The last time a rival challenged a Gamesmaster the game took forty years to complete, and by the end armies had been crushed, faiths had been expunged, governments had fallen and dynasties had ended. High-stakes stuff. The Master also explores the motivations of the Gamesmaster herself, the ancient past of the house and its possible reasons for existing as it does.
I had a great time reading these books, and due to the short length of the stories they work fantastically well as a collection. I’d not have been satisfied with just the first one on its own as it introduces us to some amazing concepts and then barely scratches the surface, but together they form a beautiful and daring book. I’d highly recommend this one to the usual fantasy lovers, but I also think this is the sort of book that could hold the attention of someone who wants their stories grounded in a reality they know and feel comfortable with.
The Gameshouse is thought-provoking, fantastical and plain old good fun. You should pick it up.
The Gameshouse will be released on May 28th 2019. You can pre-order it here.