Claire North’s The Gameshouse (2019) collects three previously-published novellas — “The Serpent,” “The Thief,” and “The Master,” each previously-reviewed by Kat — into one volume, and after years of hoping for them to be available in physical format, I’m pleased to be able to say that these three stories were well worth the wait. Kat’s reviews of the novellas are thorough and cover every salient detail prospective readers will need (no surprise there) and, equally unsurprising to me, my reactions to each installment lined up precisely with hers.
Of the three, I think “The Serpent” was my favorite, and was an easy 5-star rating. North’s prose is gorgeously detailed, evoking the best and worst aspects of main character Thene’s life as a noblewoman in 17th-century Venice. Though Thene comes to the attention of the Gameshouse as a result of her boorish husband’s gambling addiction, her own abilities and strengths are what make her stand out as a tremendously talented player of the political game played by the Gameshouse’s elite, and the mixture of mundane and supernatural elements is nicely balanced. “The Serpent” captivated me from the first page to the last, and it’s a story that I’ll return to for the pleasure of re-reading North’s writing and the surprising character depth and development she creates in such a short format.
“The Thief” also earns 5 stars from me, primarily due to the overwhelmingly claustrophobic nature of its tale; Remy’s terrifying game of hide-and-seek begins so quickly, and the tension over whether he’ll be found or succeed in evading capture builds so relentlessly, that I kept forgetting to breathe while I raced through the pages of his story. The resolution, like Thene’s resolution in “The Serpent,” was tremendously satisfying, and I once again am blown away by North’s skill in creating a fully-realized and engrossing world with a respectable economy of pages and words.
“The Master,” in comparison, seems like it’s trying to do too much in too many places at once, and suffers a bit; I give it 4 stars. Where “The Serpent” and “The Thief” are laser-focused on a character in a specific time and place, “The Master” follows Silver (who appears in the other two novellas and is, deservedly, given a story of his own) on a mad dash around the world, burning contacts and spending money like it’s radioactive as he hunts down the true identity and location of the mistress of the Gameshouse and she, in turn, attempts to track him down and remove him as a player of consequence, so to speak. The frantic pacing doesn’t quite work within the structure of the novella, and the resolution certainly wasn’t what I was expecting; I agree with Kat’s assessment that this story might have worked better as a novel, in order to more fully explore the ideas and possibilities North raises right at the very end.
Overall, however, these novellas intrigued and captivated me, and I’m so glad to have gotten the chance to finally read them after Kat brought them to my attention years ago. I highly recommend The Gameshouse novellas, particularly in this collected format, and as always, I look forward to reading whatever Claire North writes next.