Though Claire North’s The Gameshouse collects three novellas previously only available as ebooks, it works quite beautifully as a novel in three parts. The obvious through line is the titular setting itself—an ancient, occult place that tugs the strings of history via its dicing—but there is a deeper game at play
When we first enter the Gameshouse, it is a 17th Century Venetian gaming hell. We follow a woman, Thene, into the gambling den, where she is taken by a hateful husband who seeks to crack her icy quiet with his depravity. He married her for money to go along with his own ancient title and new poverty, and has since squandered both their marriage and her wealth. She begins to play, first tentatively and inexpertly, but her confidence and skill grow. In time, she taken up into the upper levels of the Gameshouse to meet the Gamesmaster, a woman in white behind a white mask, who invites her to play for the higher leagues and at larger stakes.
The games carried out below are common, legible ones, played between people on a table—chess and cards, mahjong and shogi; their winnings are tangible. In the upper leagues, the board opens up onto the world, as the doors in the Gameshouse open impossibly to cities all over the globe. Thene will play a game of kings against three other players. The board is Venice. Each player must position their king to be elected to the Supreme Tribune (a place of some importance in the complex politics of Venice). At their disposal are pieces, people who are in hock, in one way or another, to the Gameshouse: a bureaucrat, a nun, a courtesan, others. Whoever wins will be inducted into the higher league; the rest will become pieces in other players’ games. Thene dons a white mask, like the Gamesmaster herself, and begins.
The second game starts with less preamble. Remy Burke, a journeyman player with the Gameshouse for half a century, awakens in his hotel room in Bangkok in 1938 with a wicked hangover and the creeping realization he made a bad wager while drunk. Abhik Lee—new to the upper leagues and ambitious—first wore Burke down with drink, then challenged him to a game of hide-and-seek, which seems innocuous enough at first. But like most upper league games, the stakes are more substantial than money or land: if Remy loses, he forfeits his memories; if he wins, he takes 20 years from Lee. Remy has 20 minutes to pull it together before Lee starts to seek him. When tagged, Remy becomes the seeker. Whoever hides the longest wins. The board is all of Thailand.
Remy’s hand in this game is woefully weak: he’s over six feet tall, looks obviously foreign in Thailand, and cannot access any of his pieces outside the country. Lee can pass for Thai and holds dozens of pieces in government, organized crime, monasteries, and constabularies. Though Remy is resigned to his own bad judgement in accepting this game with these restrictions—it was his choice, drunk or not—that the Gameshouse allowed such an unbalanced game is troubling. The white-robed umpires have intervened before in games less obviously tilted. Remy is helped out of the hotel by a player we’ve met before, a man known as Silver. He played chess with Thene before she began her game of kings, prodding her gently with questions about the nature of the game, of all games. He’s got a young man’s face, but he’s rumored to be older than any player save the Gamesmaster herself.
Thene’s section has an almost stately sense about it—deliberate and political, but occasionally, suddenly bloody—its tone matched to 17th Century Venetian politics; Thene wears a mask, but underneath, she roils. Remy’s headlong hurtle through Bangkok and out into the Thai countryside is breathless and tense, the entire section fraught as he clambers through jungles and hides in outbuildings, hungry, cold or hot, bitten by insects, broken and bleeding. His experience on the board matches Thailand in 1938, on the cusp of war, with a weather eye turned to the colonial powers, the French and the English, and the imperial Japanese. Thailand’s place on the world stage is precarious; it stands out like Remy. Both narratives are sunk in the history of their places, but don’t get distracted overmuch by the detail of the board. It is just the board, after all, but topography matters.
Then we begin to see the larger game, the one between Gamesmaster and player, between storyteller and reader. The perspective of the three stories is odd: there is a we—a you and I—which lingers after the meeting to see one player’s private reaction, or addresses (parenthetically) the fates of minor characters, or pulls back for long shots of the play. It is something like first, second, and third person all rolled into one, both omniscient and withholding, shifting as the story/game requires. North (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, 84K) favors high concepts fantasy novels that take their premises quite seriously indeed. The Gameshouse is both literary and fantastic, and the games within both deadly serious and playful.
The coin turns.
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