In 17th century Venice, the young daughter of a wealthy merchant is married off to an older aristocrat wastrel who has lost his money by gambling. His habits continue after the marriage, and he is abusive, which makes her respond by becoming cold and aloof. In an attempt to provoke her, he drags her to a gameshouse, where he continues to lose his money on trivial games of chance and skill.
But she is intrigued by the exotic setting and the cosmopolitan players. She studies the games and is eventually invited to play. Because she shows great skill, and perhaps because of her unhappy situation, she is invited upstairs to the real Gameshouse which only a few people know about. Here players compete in high-stakes real-life situations. The world is their gameboard and real people are their pieces and cards.
The game she is given the chance to play involves the election of the new Doge of Venice. She must play her particular politician using the cards and pieces she was dealt. To be successful, she will need to overcome her fears. If she succeeds in making her assigned politician the Doge, she will become the newest member of the immortal Gameshouse and will finally be able to control her own destiny, as well as the destinies of others.
The Serpent, which is the first of three novellas about The Gameshouse, is exquisite. Claire North brings exotic Venice to life and peoples it with several characters who manage to feel unique and complex despite North’s necessarily quick treatment of them in this short work. North bravely makes unusual and risky narrative choices and pulls it off beautifully. The writing is gorgeous and thought-provoking:
Few cities are more beautiful and more ugly in the dark than Venice. The city is a jewel of contradictions. We stand by the waters of the lagoon, you and I, and watch the moonlight ripple beneath a star-pricked sky. We hear the creaking of the ships, smell fish sizzling in the pan, hear the distant laughter and feel the warmth through an open door, and know that this is surely paradise, the beautiful city, and marvel at how great are the deeds that man has wrought. Yet turn away, and what is there now in this place that is not a threat? The alleys too dark, the walls too close, the water lapping at your feet hungry, hungry…
Or maybe here is the most terrible truth of all: that in a city as tide-turned as Venice is, perhaps it is simply too hard to find love, loyalty and truth, and so in other virtues people invest their hearts — passion, beauty, poetry and song, fancying perhaps that these shadows of the former are as great as love itself.
The prose throughout the novella is a decadent pleasure. The plot involving the city’s political machinations is entertaining, and the allusions to the Tarot perfectly tie together the old Venetian setting, the gaming plot, and the mystical aspects of the Gameshouse.
I listened to Hachette Audio’s production of The Serpent, which is four hours long and narrated by Peter Kenny. I thought he was absolutely perfect for this story. His tone, voices, and pacing were superb and greatly added to my enjoyment of the story. You can purchase the Kindle version of The Serpent for only $2, but I encourage you, while you’re at Amazon, to sample the audio version and see if you might like to spend a little extra for this lovely novella.
There are, so far, two more stand-alone novellas in THE GAMESHOUSE series: The Thief and The Master. I can’t wait to spend more time with the players of The Gameshouse.