The Serpent by Claire North

Rating 9.5/10
The Serpent is a short but wonderful story

A Recommended Book of the Month

The Serpent by Claire North is the first novella in the Gamehouse trilogy, a series that revolves around a supernatural casino where the game boards are locations, the pieces are people, and the stakes can be just about anything. As with previous Claire North works, the Gamehouse novellas are quite literary in style, with clever supernatural elements enabling some quite original storytelling. The novella's clock in at around 100-150 pages, but that is more than enough to tell what I thought was a fantastic engrossing tale.

The Serpent is set in 17th century Venice and follows a woman named Thene, whose lot in life is to be a good wife to her miserable husband. While her husband develops compulsive gambling addiction and wastes all of their money at the Gamehouse, Thene is quietly honing her skills and winning the money she requires to leave her husband and strike out on her own. Her ability doesn't go unnoticed, resulting in an invitation from the Gamemaster to play a very special game -  there is to be an election in Venice, four players are each given a nominee, the winner is the player who gets their nominee elected. The prize is a place in the higher leagues of the Gamehouse, the cost for the three players who fail is a lifetime ban from the Gamehouse. And there are suspicions that this game has not been created evenly.

The Serpent provides a fantastic introduction to the Gamehouse, slowly introducing readers to the lore that drives the supernatural aspects, while also revealing that any game can be interpreted in any way for some very interesting stakes. While reading The Serpent, it became apparent that the Gamehouse is more than just a place to play wild and wonderful games for weird stakes, it is a means of controlling the destiny and development of the world. The players aren't playing with plastic pieces on a table, they are playing with real people where the results will heavily influence nations, wars, commerce, stock markets, and more. It is a fascinating concept, and I would love for North to write many more stories in this world.

Thene is a driven and intelligent woman, capable of adapting to different situations when required. As a result, she can come across as rather cold and calculating (hence the title of this novella), so at times it can be a little hard to sympathise with her hardships, and a little hard to cheer for her victories achieved by questionable means. North makes it clear that Thene will do anything to win the game, and the strength with which she pursues her goals makes her very admirable, if not 100% likable.

The Serpent is a short but wonderful story, full of twists I saw coming, and turns I never saw coming. The concept is intriguing, the execution is almost faultless, and all I want is more Gamehouse novellas.

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