(2019) Claire North, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 410pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51312-6
The Games House by Claire North was originally published as three novellas, 'The Serpent', 'The Thief' and 'The Master'. They are linked together by the titular Games House, a place outside of normal reality where people can go to gamble, perhaps for money and jewels, mundane things in the lower league. However, if you play well enough to get an invite to the higher league, then you gamble with lives, other peoples’ and parts of your own. You might gamble your sense of the colour purple, your hearing, your memory or actual years of your life. Your playing pieces are other people and their lives are easily spent.
The first is the story of a woman, told by a nameless narrator in the third person. North plays with the tense and breaks the fourth wall to address the reader, which creates a sense of detachment from the story for the narrator:
“She will be called Thene”
“Jacamo de Orcelo was not a fine husband”
“Perhaps, like Thene, you see too the...”
This pulls the reader into the tale and create the narrator as a character even though we don’t know who they are.
Thene is a young woman in an arranged marriage with a man much older than her, from a higher social position, who needed her family’s wealth to fund his gambling habit. Eventually he finds his way to the Games House and gambles his way through the lower league. He forces Thene to come with him to witness as he gambles away their wealth and livelihood. She is approached by a man called Silver who invites her to play, small odds to start with, but the odds grow, and it turns out she has some skill in this. Then she is invited to the upper league and the games continue.
The changes in the gender power balance are interesting, Thene started as the pawn of her father, was passed to her husband, but slowly took control of her own destiny and started to control others around her.
The second novella is a story of a man called Remy Burke, narrated by the same voice. Remy is an experienced player of the higher league who got uncharacteristically drunk and agreed to a game of hide and seek, in the whole of Thailand, with only a five-minute head-start. He gambled the whole of his memories and his much younger opponent, twenty years of his life.
In the third and final story our narrator is finally unmasked and steps up to challenge the mistress of the Games House herself is a worldwide game of chess. The objective is to take the king, which is played by themselves. But maybe the narrator has more to lose than his life, all maybe he has already lost all he has?
The Games House is an interesting book, with twists and turns, and quite nuanced details within the stories themselves. North once again demonstrates her versatility and range in producing this work which is so different from her other novels.
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