Your monsters tell us who you think the enemy is. If they’re zombies, the enemy is the faceless other, boiling en masse out of who knows where to destroy our world. If they’re vampires, the enemy is the hidden elite, stealthily sucking the life out of the community from a perch at the top of the food chain. I am coming to the thought that Claire North is a hidden poet of the “vampires are the enemy” school. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has a sneaky elite, and Touch has an even sneakier one. And now along come the three short novellas of The Gameshouse with a cast of gamblers hiding among us, eking out an unnatural life through a casino which lets people gamble their lives, their memories, their senses; everything that makes them what they are.
Quite why the Gameshouse wasn’t a full length book I don’t know, but I suspect it didn’t work for North’s preferred way of getting the job done; both her novels have been told through the eyes of one of the bad guys, and the story she wanted to tell this time needed more than one set of eyes. Still she can’t resist the buttonholing urgent narrator, sidling up to us with an apologetic grin and a carefully elliptical explanation of how, really, he’s the good guy, if you just look it from his point of view. The first two novellas are ostensibly the stories of Thene and Remy, but they’re told to us by someone else, chattily showing us just as much of their story as he chooses, reeling in our sympathies as Thene and Remy try to escape their fates. Thene uses the Gameshouse to try to escape from a a loveless marriage in 17th century Venice, and Remy uses everything he can find to try to escape from a bad gamble being managed by the Gameshouse. The odds are stacked against them, but why? And why are we being told about it?
And then, in the third novella, we get some answers, and meet the narrator of the first two novellas, before we end on a cliff hanger which I don’t imagine North will bother to resolve. The resolution of the plot isn’t the point; the point is that once again shadowy figures move around our ordinary lives, taking a little here and a little there and somehow winding up with more than us, and less than they wanted, and a landscape around them that’s shattered by their passage. Whatever could that remind us of? Could this possibly echo celebrity culture more cuttingly?
And yet, Claire North has a full length novel coming out in a couple of months. At this rate I expect it to end with an explicit statement that she’s only being allowed to write these books because seeing things as fiction stops us from thinking that they’re real enough to spark a revolution.