Book Review

The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

When Léo joined the Montverre academy he was a nobody, but he dreamed of winning its legendary Great Game.

When Carfax joined, he was notorious: the son of a family renowned for their brilliance – and their madness.

Their rivalry would end in tragedy.

Years later, Léo returns to Montverre. Carfax is gone, but his sister is now the first ever female master of the Game.

As secrets whisper in the walls, what will Léo do to win this time?

I absolutely adored The Binding, so much so that it was my book of the year for 2019.  So of course I pre-ordered The Betrayals, and then let it languish on the bookshelf for some eight months or so before actually reading it… 🤦🏻‍♀️

The novel centres around the concept of the Grand Jeu – the Great Game referred to in the blurb.  I’m not going to try to describe what the Grand Jeu is exactly, at least partly because having read the novel, I’m still not sure that I could put it into words.  And to be honest, it doesn’t matter all that much.  The Grand Jeu seems to be deliberately arcane and esoteric, and I think that maybe that’s the point.  There’s so much focus on this “national game” that is perhaps not actually all that meaningful to real life in any way, shape, or form, and yet it’s clearly elitist in such a way as to segment society along pseudo-class lines.

Léo Martin is a former student of Montverre academy – an Oxbridge type of establishment in all but name – and a gold medal winner in his second year, the youngest to be awarded such an accolade.  From there he went into politics, but is now returning to the academy to study the Grand Jeu as a disgraced politician having dared to express an opinion that goes against that of the Party he’s aligned to.  I have to admit that I struggled with Léo’s character as he is, frankly, a bit of a dick.  He comes across as being arrogant, selfish, and misogynist, and his better qualities (there are some!) are vastly overshadowed by the negatives. 

His is an interesting point of view, however, and it’s through Léo that we learn more of the world in which The Betrayals is set.  Anyone who has read The Binding will know that Collins does world-building brilliantly, and this novel immerses you in a one-party state that borders on the dystopian.  The Party seems to be taking steps to “purify” society, removing those who are in some way undesirable, with the latest bill targeting those of the Christian faith.  This is seemingly achieved on the sly at times, with Léo wondering – despite being a part of the Party – what happened to the homeless that are no longer seen on the streets.  It’s difficult not to consider the incumbent political party in the UK through this lens while reading The Betrayals, particularly with its views on immigration. 

Montverre – traditionally an exclusively male establishment – has changed little since Léo’s student days, but has recently appointed its first female Magister Ludi.  With no female students and no other female teaching staff, it’s easy to see what a momentous move this is.  Claire Dryden is more than up to the task, and seems – outwardly, at least – to take the challenges she faces in her stride.  While not the main protagonist, it was Claire’s character that I was rooting for throughout the novel, particularly as we see her combatting the casual, everyday sexism that she faces from her fellow magisters.  You can feel her anger at every slight – intended or otherwise – and I wanted to see her triumph, particularly as women are encouraged to focus on “home, husband and happiness” within this society, and there’s a sense that Claire’s position is perhaps not as secure as it should be. 

We also get to follow Léo’s diary from his time as a student at Montverre.  This does him no favours, and we see that his arrogance has been ingrained for quite some time.  We follow him through his second year at Montverre (the age of the students and duration of study puts Montverre on a par with UK universities) and his complex relationship with fellow student, Aimé Carfax de Courcey.  I really enjoyed reading about Léo’s earlier days, even if I didn’t like him any more for it.  It’s a shift in tone, and it’s through this element of the text that the reader develops more of an understanding of the Grand Jeu, even if the concept remains just out of reach. 

As the title suggests, this is a novel about betrayal in its various guises, but also about redemption and equality.  It contains some unusual concepts, and if you’re unsure about this one, my advice is to dive in and not worry too much about what the game is.  The Betrayals is a fantastic novel – beautifully written and utterly compelling, I highly recommend it. 

The Betrayals is published by The Borough Press, and is available now in hardback, eBook, and audio formats. The paperback is due for publication in October.

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