Tuesday, May 29, 2018


Claire North's trilogy of novellas The Serpent, The Thief, and The Master, all focus on a mythical "Gameshouse", a gambling institution which travels magically from city to city, endures through time, and exerts a strange pull over all humanity. But over our main characters firstly, lastly, and most of all.

The first book, The Serpent, focuses on Thene, an unhappily-married woman in 1610 Venice. Her introduction to the Gameshouse is through her dissolute husband, who gambles and drinks away all his money in the "lower games" part of the club: the usual gambling games, poker and card games, betting on other things, and so on. Checkers. Coin flips. (Battleship, Monopoly, and Diplomacy, once the stories reach the present day.) Thene first follows her idiot husband there, but soon becomes involved in the games herself, and rises to our notice by being smarter at playing games than the rest of the rabble.

One intriguing thing about this novella is its use of person: it is told in the third-person sort-of-omniscient, except for frequent intrusions of first-person into the narrative. This collusive tone of "we now turn to look at..." is as if the narrator is drawing back a curtain on the next scene, and implicating the reader in some of the voyeurism involved in chasing down the parts of this gambling-addicted, high-stakes (literally) tale. The thing I did in the last sentence of the previous paragraph? That's exactly the tone.

Thene is invited to play "higher" games by the mysterious, cloaked figures (inevitably called "umpires") who adjudicate the games. In particular, she is invited to play at a game of "kings", which amounts to meddling in local politics to get her "piece" (a person) elected to the post of Tribune (top of the political heap in Venice). The rest of the story devolves by playing on the tropes of real life as a game: she is dealt cards, each card representing one person who she can use as an asset to influence the election, collect information, spy, steal, kill. The game has rules but those rules are few and not particularly scrupulous. It's a short story about politics, and gender roles, and being cold and calculating with even your own life; the tone is mysterious and compelling. (I find all of Claire North's writing to be hard-to-put-down, intricately crafted, brilliant; see previously.)

The second book, The Thief, maintains the same tone but steps up the silliness of the "magical timeless gambling house that secretly controls all people's lives" by being mostly about a game of hide-and-seek. Yeah, that's right: high stakes hide-and-seek. It's adult-league: guns and spies are involved, as well as police bribery, survival skills, and general action-movie levels of cleverness and desperation under pressure. Just as in The Serpent, there are a few scenes where the main character Remy, a French-English expat in 1938 Thailand, interacts with a mysterious yet powerful fellow games-player known only as "Silver" (actual name gambled and lost many millennia ago). We, the readers, get the clear sense that Silver is playing a long-term game, gradually accreting favors owed from other long-lived game players, in order to play some even larger and more momentous game. By the end of the novella, it is clear that Silver is our first-person narrator, and that he has been building these tales to explain the board, the pieces, and the rules of the game he will play.

The third book, The Master, focuses on this game: Silver challenges the mysterious-in-the-extreme Gamesmaster, "the woman all in white who guards the halls wherein we play" (p. 6), who has appeared at the fringes only as an entirely-white-robed-and-veiled figure adjudicating previous games. All high-level players --- Thene, Remy, Silver, the Gamesmaster --- are effectively immortal, as the Gameshouse allows people to gamble years of their lives, or chronic illnesses, or memories, or "your perception of the richness of the colour purple" (The Thief, p.102). So what stakes are possibly interesting to these immortal, calculatingly clever, unstoppably lucky people? Silver doesn't quite ever make it clear until the final scene, but his objections to the Gameshouse are clear. While players may think that they are powerful, unseating local governments or swaying elections or sinking actual battleships in their games, Silver's suspicion is that they are all being used in a larger game, one in which the Gamesmaster shapes human history towards a particular path. He can't tell what it is, and no one else can either, but the objection to being a piece in someone else's game is strong.

The plot of The Master revolves around a game of chess, but the line between the game-as-metaphor and game-as-literal-life is the most blurred of all three stories: each player is the "king" on their own team, and the game is a series of "moves" which could just as well be cut scenes in a Bourne or Bond action film. The board is the entire planet. The goal, of course, is to capture the other king; people are pawns, militaries are knights, and overall the metaphor is taken right to the edge of overdone and intolerable. Over the course of the story --- which happens in present-day, or maybe just-future-tomorrow --- the entire world descends into chaos, as the competing players draw on contacts in various militaries and governments to attempt to capture each other, bomb each other, create and destroy social movements with the goal of imprisoning the other, etc. The action ratchets up in increments but overall is hyperbolically done; with throwaway lines about how World War I was simply a quick round of some silly game between small-time players, it is clear that this game is insane, and also unstoppable.

All very believably and compellingly told. Claire North continues to be a writer with a direct line into my brain; her words are like the hooks side of velcro, and I am caught.

My only qualm is this: often the players use favors they have accumulated from normal, non-immortal people who just have a gambling problem. They seem to have these favors in unlimited supply. How? Those people are turning over at least once every century, so to maintain a world-wide collection of favors owed, high-level Gameshouse players would need to be constantly touring the globe and playing frivolous-to-them games against plebians. We see in the stories that they don't enjoy doing this... yet they must have.

A lot of plot digest and not a lot of reflection on my part, here. I love Claire North's writing. She has really perfected the art of slowly laying out breadcrumbs of plot, of gradually unfurling a bizarre and unexpected premise. Bravo all-around.

This post's theme word is hypercathexis (n), "excessive concentration of mental energy on something." Taking advantage of his opponent's hypercathexis during this round, Silver sneakily gleaned the information that allowed him to win the game.