The Gameshouse Novellas by Claire North

The Gameshouse novellas – The Serpent, The Thief and The Master – have been published as separate (digital) volumes, although the stories are interlinked, which is why I’ve chosen to review them in a single post.  Because of the progression through each story, they should be read in order, particularly as the first does a lot of scene setting, in terms of how the games are played and what is at stake, making the subsequent stories easier to follow.

The Gameshouse is a place where people can go to play games of strategy and logic – chess, backgammon, card games etc. are all available, and people can play for whatever stakes they are comfortable with.  For a select few players, there is an invitation to play in the “higher league”.  Here, the games are played on a grander scale and for bigger stakes.  “Capture the Castle”, for example, might be played with real castles.  Kings and queens, the outcome of a war, may be determined by the players involved in a particular game.

The Serpent is set in Venice in the early 1600s.  Thene is new to the Gameshouse, dragged there by her adulterous, irresponsible husband.  Unexpectedly, she finds that she has a natural affinity for the games played, unlike her husband who seems intent on bankrupting them.  Being invited to join the higher league, she plays a game of kings to prove her worth.

The Thief moves to Vietnam in the 1930s.  Here, Remy is challenged to a game of hide and seek, with the whole of Thailand being within bounds.  It’s relatively straightforward – Remy hides for as long as he can, whilst his opponent seeks him out using whatever resources he has available, which may include the police and the army.  Once caught, the roles change, and the hunter becomes the hunted – the winner being the one who manages to hide the longest.

The Master moves into the modern day, and the ultimate game – a challenge against the Gamesmaster herself.  From The Thief and The Master, we see how this has been building up over centuries (one benefit of playing in the higher league is longevity, if not immortality).  The game is chess – played across a global scale, each contestant using their resources (armies, hackers and institutions such as MI5) to manoeuvre into positions where they can checkmate their opponent.

I loved the idea behind the novellas.  I think that North has a huge imagination, as demonstrated in both The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch (both of which I really enjoyed) and is again demonstrated in these novellas.  But, I felt that some of the writing was a little clumsier than expected.  I don’t know if the author was revisiting something she’d written a while ago (before she’d found her current, more practised form), or if they needed a little more editing.  But, overall, an entertaining and interesting idea that was, for the most part, well executed.

The characterisation throughout all three tales is excellent.  Each character is fully developed, with a complex back-story that can be difficult to get across in the space of a novella, but that North does brilliantly without resorting to “info dumping”.  And the stories are incredibly well researched – there’s a real sense of place in each novella that comes across as being realistic, despite some of the more fantastical elements to the tales.

The Serpent, The Thief and The Master have (so far) been published in a digital format only.  I always think that this is a strange move – there are those out there who only read books in a physical format.  I do wonder if these will be published as a physical book – be that a single volume, or as three novellas – to satisfy the needs of those who don’t own an e-reading device.  It does seem an odd move to restrict the potential audience, however prolific e-readers have become.

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