It’s my spot on The Write Reads blog tour for Knave of Secrets – a story of cardsharps, gamblers, political machinations and layers and layers of intrigue and magic. It makes for an impressive, although dense, story.
Title: The Knave of Secrets
Author: Alex Livingston
Publisher: Solaris, Rebellion Publishing
Publication Date: 7th June 2022
Ownership: ARC provided by the publisher for The Write Reads tour
Rating: 3.5 stars (rounded down to 3)
About the Book
Never stake more than you can afford to lose.
When failed magician turned cardsharp Valen Quinol is given the chance to play in the Forbearance Game—the invitation-only tournament where players gamble with secrets—he can’t resist. Or refuse, for that matter, according to the petty gangster sponsoring his seat at the table. Valen beats the man he was sent to play, and wins the most valuable secret ever staked in the history of the tournament.
Now Valen and his motley crew are being hunted by thieves, gangsters, spies and wizards, all with their own reasons for wanting what’s in that envelope. It’s a game of nations where Valen doesn’t know all the rules or who all the players are, and can’t see all the moves. But he does know if the secret falls into the wrong hands, it could plunge the whole world into war…
There is an awful lot that is very impressive about this book, namely its cardgames, the economies, wealth and status built on gambling and the political intrigue of two rival rules – the Queendom and the Empire. So much research, planning and thought. That, however, also makes things a bit of a struggle in places …
We start the story with Valen and his crew out on a rigged game. And, in many ways, that felt the main show of the characters’ skills as gamblers. Even when Valen makes it to the Forbearance Games, there’s not much that he can actually do. So if you’re expecting lots of sitting around tables gambling James Bond style, it’s not quite that. The rest of the time, the team are being caught up in bigger and bigger plot points that are quite out of their control.
There are two, even three big power dynamics in this world – one is the dependence on and normalisation of gambling. Each city, each island has its own preferred games and styles. A lot of thought and research has gone into this and its truly impressive. There’s even a snippet of history or lore at the start of each chapter. But this also makes things incredibly dense – you’re not quite sure what are pertinent details and what’s just impressive padding.
Another dynamic is the politics – the nobility of this world are vying for power and status, and to constantly unbalance and re-balance the status quo between these two rival states.
And the final dynamic is the magic system – a Séminaire of Brothers (despite including women) who practice divination or enchantments and seem to have an awful lot of power, but are somehow removed from politics. It also seems that anyone with enough money can buy their way in to learning this magic.
There’s just so much going on! Thank goodness the majority is set on one small island. But that also means that the timelines and the (many) points of view feel both stretched and squashed as you’re not quite sure what is happening in parallel with something else.
It also means that the characters are a little densely packed too – the team is a great combination of the leader (Valen), his wife forger-extraordinaire (Maguerite), their school friend and Mistigri nomad (Tenerieve) and the pirate-witch Jacquemin. But with short snippets of at least three other characters, this takes away the focus from the main group. The more I read of them, I also found Valen and Jaq a little smug and bland – Ten and Margo would have been a much more interesting focus. I also found focusing on Ten’s ‘so white it’s nearly blue skin’, which set her up for racial profiling a little shoe-horned in, just to add diversity that isn’t diversity.
But that’s a lot of moaning for a book that I’m still rating pretty highly – I enjoyed the story, the layers slowly being peeled back, the characters not realising quite how far in over their heads they are, and the complexity of the world.
I received an ARC of this book from the publisher and The Write Reads in exchange for an honest review.