The Gameshouse by Claire North

May 30, 2019

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… a league where the games played are of politics and empires, of economics and kings. It is a league where Capture the Castle involves real castles, where hide and seek takes place on the scale of a continent.

Among those worthy of competing in the higher league, three unusually talented contestants play for the highest stakes of all…

I’ve made no secret about the fact that I love Claire North’s work. 84K is masterful, and managed to blow my mind. The End of the Day is utterly sublime and remains a firm favourite. In fact, I’ll go further, it has a much-coveted place on my list of top ten books. With these shocking revelations in mind, it may not come as much of a surprise when I tell you I was excited when a copy of The Gameshouse arrived through my letterbox.

The Gameshouse is a collected edition of three previously published e-novellas: The Serpent, The Thief and The Master.

The Serpent follows a woman called Thene who plays the game of Kings in seventeenth century Venice. In a place where politics has become an art form, is it possible for the least powerful player to outsmart her rivals? As Thene learns the rules that govern this most exclusive of clubs, it acts as an ideal introduction for the reader. The power plays and underhanded tactics of competitors play out against this famous city, and you quickly get a sense of how all-encompassing The Gameshouse is.

The Thief, set in 1930s Thailand, involves one of the most complicated games of hide and seek ever played. Remy Burke, after making a foolish drunken wager, needs to disappear in a country where he sticks out like a sore thumb. Is Remy skilled enough to evade capture and use his meagre resources to turn the tables in his favour? As with its predecessor, there is a genuinely evocative air to this story. The sights and sounds of Thailand feel almost palpable.

The Master brings us bang up to date, and follows a man called Silver in the endgame to end all endgames. What could be a better prize than The Gameshouse itself? In a Highlander-esque nod there can only ever be one Gamesmaster. The competition to determine who that will be plays out on a global scale.

Each novella is a study in tension and escalating consequence. The scope of each story increases exponentially to reflect this. The Serpent takes place in a single city, The Thief in a single country while The Master has the entire planet as a backdrop. Each of these stories explore the nature of games, greed, regret and conflict. Individually they delight, but as part of a larger story they are something far more gripping. They dovetail together seamlessly creating a perfect whole. I was impressed how The Gameshouse manages to be many things at once. The writing doesn’t just entertain, it’s also insightful and thought-provoking. North has real skill when it comes to exploring the human condition.

There are also some wonderful throw away lines that help flesh out the history of this strange establishment and the players that use it. I particularly like the details of the stakes people are willing to risk. One character loses his appreciation of the colour purple. Another has to part with twenty years of life. The wagers are ever increasing, and it got me thinking about just what I would be prepared to give away on the toss of a coin or the roll of a die. Being ambivalent about a certain colour seems like the most inconsequential thing, but think about it, there is far more to this pot than appears at first glance. You are essentially giving away a little bit of yourself. A tiny nugget of the uniqueness that is you and no one else. Suddenly it becomes a much riskier proposition doesn’t it? Consistently losing bets like this would equate to a slow death. Conversely, the rewards could be life altering. Imagine the chance at effective immortality or decades worth of knowledge could bring. Now ask yourself the question again, would taking that chance be worth it?

The fact I found myself pondering such thoughts is testament to just how engrossing the writing is. The premise of The Gameshouse is fascinating. It manages to be deliciously simple and devilishly complex in the same breath. The simple part – you win, or you lose. Seems fairly binary, just black or white, zero or one. There is more complex consideration however – win or lose the outcome of your actions will have consequences. The idea that, if invited, you can play games that could potentially shape nations and change, or even end, lives is tempting and terrifying in equal measure.

There are subtle clues to the ultimate conclusion of The Gameshouse scattered throughout the entire narrative. It’s only when I got to the last chapters though that it all clicked. These final revelations are well executed and guarantee to leave any reader feeling rewarded by the experience.

On a side note, can anyone tell me why have we not seen any of Claire North’s fiction adapted for the screen? The Gameshouse would be an ideal candidate for an anthology series. From what I can see it’s the sort of thing Netflix are terribly good at.

I’ll let you into a little secret, being a book reviewer is one of the best things in the world. I’m sent a fair number of books on a regular basis. The downside to that is I live in a little semi-detached Hobbit-hole and space is at a bit of a premium. Due to this, most of the books I read and review find their way to the local charity shop when I’m done. There are a few notable exceptions that survive the regular cull (don’t tell Mrs Cheesecake). I’ve kept hold of every Claire North novel I’ve been fortunate enough to read. There is no way I could ever part with them, I know that I’m going to read them again. The Gameshouse has now been added to this exclusive list.

If you’ve not read any of this author’s earlier work, I would suggest The Gameshouse is your ideal gateway drug. Once you’re suitably addicted, and I have every expectation you will be, there are plenty of other gems to discover. I know we are only in May, but I reckon chances are extremely good that The Gameshouse is going to feature in my best books of 2019 post come December. Claire North’s writing is truly exceptional, I urge you to check it out.

My musical accompaniment for The Gameshouse is the soundtrack to Miss Sloane by Max Richter. It perfectly encapsulated the sense of growing urgency and threat you’ll find throughout the text. As an added bonus the movie is games related so there is some nice synchronicity there as well.

The Gameshouse is published by Orbit and available now. Highly recommended.

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