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The Gameshouse is a trilogy of novels by English novelist Claire North, the World Fantasy Award-winning author of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; Claire North is a pseudonym for adult fantasy books written by Catherine Webb, who writes under the pseudonym Kate Griffin as well. The novels in this series are The Serpent, The Thief, and The Master. All three were published in 2015 as separate volumes, and they were republished in 2019 as an omnibus. The Gameshouse is a mysterious organisation which exists outside the constraints of time and place, appearing and disappearing according to unexplained rules, and the outcomes of games conducted there, no matter how childish or cerebral, affect real-world events, even overturning political regimes and wiping nations off the map. The genre of these novels ranges between low or urban fantasy and magical realism, largely due to the vast leaps in setting and time period between each book, and the fact that each book focuses on the point of view of a different protagonist, whose levels of experience within the Gameshouse differ widely and affect their sense of what constitutes the supernatural.

The Serpent follows the story of a Venetian woman named Thene, who becomes entangled in the Gameshouse through her husband's gambling addiction and her own personal ambition to make something of her life without reliance on the men who mistreat her. She is given an assignment to help a political figure win (and survive) an election, and if she should win, she will be granted entry into the "higher league," where members of the Gameshouse wager not only political advantage, money, and other tangible and fungible benefits, but where such things as talent, memory, intellect, and longevity are placed into betting pools, and games span decades and continents.

The Thief begins with the experienced player Remy Burke awakening from drinking himself into a coma, to learn that his mind has been wagered on a game of Hide and Seek, with the entire nation of Thailand as the playing field, and his opponent is a man with countless powerful connections in Thailand, while Remy is a visibly white and out-of-place Frenchman.

The Master is the culmination of the various unsecured loose ends left by the other two novels, and it focuses on Silver, who has been our narrator through the other two books and assisted Remy and Thene in their missions with the intention of gaining their allegiance and aid at a later time. Silver has been a member of the Gameshouse since time immemorial, and the game he is preparing to play will span the entire globe and pull countless innocent people into its wake, warping geopolitics permanently all for a single goal: to win back his wife. This novel is set in a fully modern context, with all the horrifying military might of the modern world being brought to bear on Silver by his opponent, and vice-versa. As such, its sense of underlying magic is far subtler, overwhelmed by the scale of the technology being used.

This series examines the psychology of games and gambling, as well as the ethics and social ramifications of actions taken by individuals with world-changing amounts of power and authority. These novels are all on the short side, and they are elegantly structured and thoroughly entertaining. The Serpent in particular has lavish, breathtaking prose, capturing a sense of an idealised Venice. I recommend them to anyone who enjoys stories with trickster figures, wild gambles, elaborate political intrigue, Faustian bargains, and protagonists who must survive by their wits in manhunts resembling The Most Dangerous Game.

Iron Noder 2021, 19/30