The Serpent (The Gamehouse 1) – A novella by Claire North
Published: November 3, 2015.
I’m a huge fan of historical fiction. Anything from Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina to C.J. Samson’s magnificent Tudor-set Matthew Shardlake series, I will at least give it my closest attention. One of my next reads is Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, a novel I should have read decades ago, but is being given its moment to shine very shortly. I’m a late-comer to most things, really.
It was by chance that I came across a review of Claire North’s novella, The Serpent, the first in a trilogy called The Gamehouse. I was in between books and this looked like the perfect “sorbet” before the next big job.
I remain very impressed by this slim piece of writing.
The setting is 17th century Venice, a place of exquisite beauty and murderous corruption. A political drama is being played out; the influential title of Doge of Venice is up for grabs; and in the middle of it all is our main character, Thene: a woman escaping from an abusive marriage, who finds herself, out of sheer desperation and boredom, frequenting the same gambling house as her wastrel husband. However, her canny way of playing the tables brings her to the attention of ‘management,’ so to speak.
The Gamehouse, it seems, has been around for quite some time, centuries surely, and often influences moments of historical interest by playing people against each another in order to affect destiny. These people know they’re being played, but the reward is great: a seat at the top table and a chance to play against the Gamesmaster herself somewhere down the line.
But in the here and now, in Venice, there is a game to be played, and an election to be won. Will Thene succeed in the Game, or will she lose out on her chance to see behind the curtains?
Because this is a slim volume, there is little time wasted in setting the scene, introducing the main players (literally), and then seeing where the story takes us. The pace is breath-taking, the prose ornate but effective. The omniscient narrator brings us into the story with him/her. We are very much party to what’s going on. The immediacy of the story and how it’s presented is palpable. The Serpent is a quick read, but it is not to be dismissed because of this. North is a clever and diverse writer (she writes under the name of Kate Griffin and her real name, Catherine Webb), and has plenty of tricks up her literary sleeve.
If you have an afternoon to spare, I highly recommend reading this novella. It’ll certainly pique your interest in reading the other two in the series, as it has most definitely piqued mine.
The author’s website can be found here.
Setting: It’s Venice, it’s the seventeenth century. It’s alive and colourful. The city is as much a character as Thene.
Characters: Even the supporting characters get their moments of glory. Even though they’re named for Tarot cards, they are as distinct as Thene. Some of them have even played past games – and lost. The pity is because the next two books move on in history, the reader won’t get to revisit them.
Pace: It’s as urgent a book as I’ve ever read. Don’t let the size fool you.