The Gameshouse Trilogy by Claire North (read by Peter Kenny) is a series of urban fantasy novellas, each set in a different era (enlightenment-era Venice, pre-World War II Thailand, and the present). Each is characterized by an underdog protagonist playing a game with the cards stacked against them. There exist across the world titular “gameshouses” where people play strategy games for money, fame, and possessions. However, if you are a particularly talented player, you can be invited to the higher league. There, your pieces are political figures and assassins in a game of intrigue and politics. The stakes are more personal: one’s memories, talents, or even years of one’s life. Soon the question becomes, not just how to win the game, but who is running the games and influencing world events. Through the different stories, the stakes are raised, and the tension dramatically increased to an excellent climax in the last novella. Although you are welcome to read them individually, they form a narrative whole when brought together.
Note: I received an audio copy of The Gameshouse from the publisher. Some things may have changed in the final version.
The Serpent, The Thief, and The Master by Claire North
Narrated by Peter Kenny
(The Gameshouse #1, 2, 3)
Published by Orbit on Nov. 3rd, 2015
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
Page Length: 100 pages
Audio Length: ~ 4 hours each
How I got my copy: Publisher
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In 17th Century Venice exists a mysterious establishment known only as the Gameshouse.
There, fortunes are made and fortunes are broken over games of chess, backgammon and every other game under the sun.
But those whom fortune favours 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 a scale as big as the British Isles.
Not everyone proves worthy of competing in the higher league. But one woman, who is about to play, may just exceed everyone's expectations.
Though she must always remember: the higher the stakes, the more deadly the rules . . .
- If you read the novellas in order, there is a nice build up of scale coupled with the revelations of the motivations of the elusive game masters.
- The protagonist, Thene, of the first novella (The Serpent) is a fun character to root for as she becomes empowered by the Gameshouse to break free from an enforced marriage as she manipulates the election of the Doge of Venice in the era of the enlightenment.
- My favorite novella of the three is the second (The Thief). Set in pre-World War II Thailand, it follows Remy as he plays the prey in a game of cat and mouse. Should Remy lose, he’d forfeit all of his memories, but he must hide from another player controlling most of the country. Remy grows as a character as he is forced to make hard ethical decisions about when to sacrifice the people around him to win the game.
- As an avid strategy board gamer myself, I enjoyed the elements of the last novella (The Master) that played with the tension between luck and skill in motivating people to play. Here, demigod-like manifestations of strategy and luck play with world events as the protagonist seeks to set humanity free from their manipulations in a colossal, world-spanning conflict.
- Although I am usually too wrapped up in the story to listen for the quality of the narration, Peter Kenny did an excellent job with the narration, including the many women and accented characters in the stories.
- As much as I liked the sense of scale of the last novella, it felt hokey how current events (Snowden revelations, Russia’s invasion of the Crimea, Chinese cyber warfare) were explained as plays in the game. But this may be a strength for others.
- The first novella starts off quite slow, as it spends a great deal of time setting up the world and the main character. The other novellas don’t suffer from this, though.
- The fact that each novella is quite short (around 4 hours each) and they are set in very different times with different people meant that the stories couldn’t have as many characters, nor flesh out the world as much as I would have liked. Though, it did lend itself to the mysteries of the Gameshouse.
- Each novella uses a different game as its foundation (cards, hide-and-seek, chess), but it is hard to infer exactly what are the rules of the games. The fantastical elements of the story (that at the start of a game, the players are given control of people to use as they will) leaves a lot of vagaries as to what is allowed, meaning it is hard to understand and predict what the characters are doing.
I very much enjoyed the Gameshouse Trilogy, and for being rather short, it packs quite a punch. If you make it through the first novella, you’ll likely enjoy the others. I enjoyed the intrigue and the plots-within-plots narrative as well as the meta-commentary on the reasons people like to play games. If you enjoy stories about a battle of wits, Gameshouse is for you.
Have you read this one? What did you think? Are you excited for it if you haven’t gotten to it yet?
– Josh (Anya’s friend)
The Gameshouse Trilogy by Claire North
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