The Master is the third and apparently final entry in Claire North’s wonderful THE GAMESHOUSE series of novellas. These stories are about a mysterious organization called The Gameshouse where elite patrons are invited to play for very high stakes. For example, they might win a prestigious political office, or they might lose the memories of their first love. Once they become involved with the Gameshouse, they belong for life and may be called on to participate in other players’ games.
In the first GAMESHOUSE novella, The Serpent, we met a 17th century Venetian woman who attempted to gain personal freedom from an abusive husband by helping another man become the doge of Venice. In the second novella, The Thief, we watched two men play hide and seek in Thailand in the 1930s.
The Master takes place in the 21st century. The man known as Silver (he lost his real name in a game) is finally ready to challenge the woman who runs the Gameshouse to a game of chess. The winner will get control of the Gameshouse and the loser will lose his or her soul to the Gameshouse. The world is their chessboard and each player’s pieces are people they’ve collected over the years who owe them debts in the game. Each player will try to take out the other player’s pieces while using his or her own pieces to capture the opponent.
The game is intense, fast-paced, exciting and brutal. The scope is epic as Silver criss-crosses the globe for years as he hides from, and pursues, the Gamesmaster. The players use every card in their hands and every trick in their arsenals to try to track and trap the other. Some of their assets include government agents, hackers, bounty hunters, assassins, the mafia, and numerous terrorist groups. They have insider access to NSA and GCHQ satellites, the New York Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve, Interpol, military forces, and media outlets.
At stake are the fates of Silver, the mistress of the Gameshouse (the Gamesmaster), and the future of the Gameshouse itself. But that’s not all, because this chess match is being played across the entire globe, so it will affect the lives of many innocent bystanders. Will Silver or the Gamesmaster care that their lust for power and control will destroy other people’s lives?
There’s a big twist at the end of The Master. I saw it coming, but I wasn’t disappointed that North didn’t manage to surprise me because she took the story where I was hoping it was going. I was surprised, however, at the actions Silver takes at the very end of the story.
There were a few reasons that I didn’t love The Master as much as I loved The Serpent and, especially, The Thief. First was that North changed the narrative style and point of view. Some readers may welcome this change, but I loved the previous style. Another issue is that this story is so short, but the pace is so frantic and the scope (both of time and space) is so epic, that a lot of the action had to be condensed into quick descriptive sentences. This made the plot feel intense, which was welcome, but I wanted to linger over it a bit longer and have time to let the consequences of this grandiose chess game sink in. I also missed the way that North, especially in the previous story, took time to explore the geography, culture and people that the characters encountered. The story in The Master was too big for that. (I think it might have worked better as a novel rather than a novella.) Lastly, while I enjoyed the plot of The Master, the drama that happened at the end didn’t resonate with me, and I didn’t quite embrace the underlying philosophy of the story. (I won’t elaborate so as to avoid spoilers). But these are small complaints.
Hachette Audio’s production of THE GAMESHOUSE is superb. Peter Kenny’s narration makes these excellent stories even more amazing. The price difference between the Kindle and Audible editions is significant, but I think this performance is so good that it’s worth the extra money (listen).