The Serpent

Claire North
The Serpent Cover

The Serpent


(Review loriginally written for the full Gameshouse trilogy)

The Gameshouse was originally published as a novella trilogy: The Serpent, The Thief and The Master, available as e-books only. Now, for the first time, the trilogy is being released together, and despite the very different protagonists and tones to each volume in this series, it's an experience that benefits from being taken altogether, allowing the overarching plot to be experienced immediately and without breaks. Plus, with its action thriller tones, its hard to pull away from this novel-sized experience once you're in its grip.

The stories all revolve around the titular Gameshouse - a place which appears to exist outside time and space, where things mundane, intangible and world-defining can be won and lost over a wide variety of games. From personal questions to political positions to chronic illnesses to "appreciation for the taste of strawberries", everything is up for wager over games ranging from snap to Mortal Kombat, and it is expected that every game must have a stake of some kind. Players dabble in the lower league until, rarely, they are invited to win a place amongst the higher-ups, where the stakes are higher and players can apparently continue for centuries. The backdrop of the Gameshouse seems to present a set of unifying rules against which the world is run, but we soon find that it isn't quite as objective as it seems; that control of the Gameshouse is itself a game which is about to come to an interesting conclusion.

In The Serpent, we are first introduced to the Gameshouse in medieval Venice, where Thene, a Jewish woman who has been married off to an abusive debtor husband, finds an escape there when she's invited by a silver-haired stranger to play. She is soon able to surpass her husband and catch the notice of higher level players, and accepts a place in a game of "Kings", where she and three others must compete to get their candidate elected as the new Tribune of Venice. The victor will be inducted into the higher level players at the Gameshouse, while the losers are barred from the institution overall. As she starts playing the hand she's been dealt - each "card" corresponding to humans who have, one way or another, come into the debt of the Gameshouse and are now serving to pay it off - Thene starts to explore the metagame beyond the rules of her particular engagement, realising that the candidate selection, her hand and the relative skills of the other players all add up to a game whose scales have been tipped in favour of others. As a Jewish woman in 1600's Venice playing against three men, and controlling the fate of a fourth, we already expect Thene to be an underdog who faces prejudice even in the relative escape of the game, but watching her uncover how the board has likely been weighted and try to understand why is just as satisfying as her actual plays. Thene is just naive enough to be likeable in a cutthroat world (not realising the stakes for some of her "pieces", for example) without ever being irritating. While it wraps up the game, Thene's story also gives us flashes of a wider story behind the Gameshouse, particularly through a distinct third-person narrator who clearly knows more than they are letting on.