Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Gameshouse by Claire North

The pieces mostly fall into place for this combined novella trilogy

Cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio

The Gameshouse was originally published as a novella trilogy: The Serpent, The Thief and The Master, available as e-books only. Now, for the first time, the trilogy is being released together, and despite the very different protagonists and tones to each volume in this series, it's an experience that benefits from being taken altogether, allowing the overarching plot to be experienced immediately and without breaks. Plus, with its action thriller tones, its hard to pull away from this novel-sized experience once you're in its grip.

The stories all revolve around the titular Gameshouse - a place which appears to exist outside time and space, where things mundane, intangible and world-defining can be won and lost over a wide variety of games. From personal questions to political positions to chronic illnesses to "appreciation for the taste of strawberries", everything is up for wager over games ranging from snap to Mortal Kombat, and it is expected that every game must have a stake of some kind. Players dabble in the lower league until, rarely, they are invited to win a place amongst the higher-ups, where the stakes are higher and players can apparently continue for centuries. The backdrop of the Gameshouse seems to present a set of unifying rules against which the world is run, but we soon find that it isn't quite as objective as it seems; that control of the Gameshouse is itself a game which is about to come to an interesting conclusion.

In The Serpent, we are first introduced to the Gameshouse in medieval Venice, where Thene, a Jewish woman who has been married off to an abusive debtor husband, finds an escape there when she's invited by a silver-haired stranger to play. She is soon able to surpass her husband and catch the notice of higher level players, and accepts a place in a game of "Kings", where she and three others must compete to get their candidate elected as the new Tribune of Venice. The victor will be inducted into the higher level players at the Gameshouse, while the losers are barred from the institution overall. As she starts playing the hand she's been dealt - each "card" corresponding to humans who have, one way or another, come into the debt of the Gameshouse and are now serving to pay it off - Thene starts to explore the metagame beyond the rules of her particular engagement, realising that the candidate selection, her hand and the relative skills of the other players all add up to a game whose scales have been tipped in favour of others. As a Jewish woman in 1600's Venice playing against three men, and controlling the fate of a fourth, we already expect Thene to be an underdog who faces prejudice even in the relative escape of the game, but watching her uncover how the board has likely been weighted and try to understand why is just as satisfying as her actual plays. Thene is just naive enough to be likeable in a cutthroat world (not realising the stakes for some of her "pieces", for example) without ever being irritating. While it wraps up the game, Thene's story also gives us flashes of a wider story behind the Gameshouse, particularly through a distinct third-person narrator who clearly knows more than they are letting on.

Centuries after Thene, several of the same players return for The Thief, which takes us to 1900s Bangkok and to, of all things, a game of hide and seek between two of the Gameshouse's elite. The protagonist, Remy Burke (a six foot European whose inability to blend in in the Thai countryside is a bit of a hindrance) wakes up after a heavy night of drinking, only to be told that one of the many things he doesn't remember about his previous night was agreeing to a game from an up-and-coming player called Abhik Lee. Moreover, Remy has bet his own memory, which is bad news both for him as a person and for the balance of the Gameshouse, where other players will struggle to deal with a player who has not only his own experience but the stolen gifts of an even older rival. Down on his luck and unprepared for any engagement, Remy nevertheless manages to get out and begin a desperate escape across rural Thailand, all the while trying to work out how the game has been allowed to go ahead in the first place. Like Thene's story, the metagame is as important as the game, and even without specific resources to deploy, Remy basically ends up thinking of all the individuals he meets as "pieces" to be used, even when he ends up making at times quite personal connections with some of them. Once again, the resolution of this hide and seek game leaves a lot unresolved in terms of how it came about, but it's quite a neat ending that remains true to Remy's desperation and the sense of weighted odds while being quite clever.

The unanswered questions of Thene and Remy's stories inevitably come back in the final novella, The Master, which raises the stakes as high as they can go. As we've been expecting since The Serpent, the series narrator takes centre stage here - in the process revealing themself and the common role they've played in each story, although this isn't particularly hard to guess - and recounts the story of a challenge to the Gamesmaster herself. The ensuing match spans years and continents, bringing down governments and criminal forces alike in a match whose ultimate goal is to find and capture, or kill, the other player. It's intriguing to watch the narration shift from an intrusive but distant third person to a first person perspective at the same time that the rotating cast of characters gets even less invested in and more quickly used and discarded. Despite bringing the trilogy to an interesting close, however, The Master worked least well of the three novellas in terms of my interest in its main story and emotional beats, because the protagonist is so institutionalised into the Gameshouse that their motivations for bringing it down, despite being revealed as deeply emotional, just aren't on a level that really resonates with the reader, especially given the scale of carnage.

And I think that's where the big "your Mileage may vary" element comes in to this trilogy: the way The Gameshouse treats its characterisation divides the world into players and pieces, even if the players in one game might be pieces in another, and caring about the use and fate of pieces beyond their utility is considered to be optional at best. There's a big assumption about how power accumulates and what it can be made to do which pervades the novels, and while there's technically an alternative - the ideology of chance, represented by another ancient character - this doesn't get much exploration and the eventual question of "is chance kinder than process" isn't truly unpacked. From the death of Thene's initial piece, which serves as a wake-up call for her even if it doesn't change her eventual trajectory the stakes escalate to tens, if not hundreds, of people being killed at once as collateral in a skirmish between two hidden people with little remark. We're locked into reading about a deeply unfair, weighted system which toys with people's lives as if the harm and the glamour are inseparable (an effect which gets even stronger when reading about colonial players in Thailand, or the global networks in The Master - a subject which could be an entire essay on its own) and these stories just don't have much alternative to offer beyond a shrug despite the amount of narrative energy spent showing up the flaws in how things are currently done.

The extent to which this aspect frustrates, however, will depend very much on what you're coming to The Gameshouse for, and if you're coming for thriller plots and action in the context of an engaging conspiratorial conceit, you're going to find those elements executed extremely well. Each of the novella-thirds is plotted extremely tightly, mysteries of the world aside, and at least in The Serpent and The Thief, the protagonists come across as likeable and competent even as they're being outplayed or struggling to make their hands work most of the time, with reversals that come suddenly but satisfyingly to pull things off. And, indeed, the fact that The Gameshouse doesn't have answers to its own questions seems on many levels to be a deliberate one, particularly given the way the overarching narrative ends. Is it valid to critique a work for a point it was never trying to make, or where the loose ends are the point? Maybe - or maybe that's just what the players want me to think? While I try to untangle myself from the webs of unknown influence guiding this review, you consider going to check out the Gameshouse next time you're after twisty - if slightly detached - speculative political thriller.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 The Serpent! Thene is amazing, the setting is great and it's the most human of the novellas.

Penalties: -1 The Master broadens the scope and the stakes but at the expense of a genuinely backable central character; -1 wait so what was that about forces of order against forces of chaos and the complex and unknown space for human kindness? Is that coming up ag - oh no, fair enough.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference:  North, Claire. The Gameshouse [Orbit, 2019].