Saturday, February 06, 2016


All the men and women are merely players. But the world's not a stage; it's a gameboard.
At his command were seven other men, of whom two were brothers, four cousins and one they'd picked up as a child and brought along, and who suffered terribly for his lack of genetic bondage. He also had three elephants under his authority, which regarded the great turbulence of the humans about them with the patience of wily priests who have seen rebellion and heard the changing of the psalms, yet looked up and known the heavens never altered for man's delight.
Over the last few weeks I had occasion to devour Claire North's trilogy of Gameshouse novellas: The Serpent, The Thief, and The Master.

I meant to be reading other things, but I moved a few weeks ago, so books were being folded into boxes, at first in a fairly orderly fashion, almost shelf by shelf, but it quickly entropified, books were everywhere, and books were packed alongside the blankets and coffee cups they kept company with. Books I vowed not to lose track of haven't been seen in weeks, including the small book I decided to keep in my purse; at some point I must've decided that it would be safer not rubbing against the measuring tape and screwdriver that I also kept at hand in my purse — I'm confident that it will turn up eventually. Books are now spilling out of those same boxes rather randomly.

I always knew where my ebook was, however, along with my laptop and a few other "valuables." I found myself downloading books at odd hours, because, it seems, I needed them desperately. Someone told me about an article that said reading pageturners significantly reduces stress. I can't find the article, and I've puzzled over the many ways one might define "pageturner," but I've used this "research" to support my sometimes seemingly injudicious use of precious time — this was time I used not merely to read but to recalibrate my emotional and mental well-being.

I'm not sure exactly how I discovered these books. Somehow they were related to some book (which wasn't available) that I'd looked up based on some review. "In seventeenth century Venice exists a mysterious establishment known only as the Gameshouse,"and I was sold.

The Gameshouse novellas are certainly pageturners. The first book lays out the premise. What at first seems to be nothing more than a casino — a gathering place for the rich, the bored, and the desperate — is an institution that spans all of time and encircles the world, insinuating itself into the fabric of cities that hold wealth and power.

The games vary in breadth. In The Serpent, players vie to have their allotted token elected as Doge of Venice. Players are also dealt cards — representing people — which they may also bring into play.

The stakes are high. Fortunes and careers, but also memories, specialized knowledge, physical characteristics, time. The mechanism behind how these transactions are processed is never divulged, but I'd trade my funky knee for someone's facility with Sanskrit in a heartbeat. Others deal in heartbeats.

The Master is my favourite of this set of novellas. A game of hide and seek. The board is 1930s Thailand. Geographically more vast than The Serpent, the game is more intimate.
"Abhik thinks that a game can only be won with ruthlessness and calculation. Were this chess, he would be right, but you, Remy, you have the greatest gift of a higher league player — you remember that your pieces are human. At a superficial level, some might say that makes you kind, but I would suggest it makes you beautiful. To play people is a vastly more elegant skill than mere number-counting."
It also becomes clear that most games are only minor skirmishes in a much larger power struggle.

The third novella, in a modern-day setting, brought closure to the series, but I would love nothing more than an infinite series of Gameshouse game novellas, set in worldclass cities across time. It might bring a new level of paranoia to the conspiracy-minded. We are all, after all, merely pawns in the great game of chess.

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