Thank you, NetGalley, for letting me read this book.
I found this book utterly engrossing. The world-building is fabulous. We enter the enclosed community of Montverre with Leo, a politican heading into exile (as he’s told, things could be much worse). Montverre is an elite school dedicated to studying and perfoming Le Grande Jeu. Le Grande Jeu is never spelled out explicity – we learn about it through the book – it involves studying music, mathematics, literature.
Montverre is a closed community. The Magisters are appointed for life, take vows of celibacy, rarely leave the confines of the school. The pupils are there on merit – but they are mostly from elite families. Outsiders can find it hard. Leo was a student there, and we shift through time, meeting him on his first day at Montverre, following his time there, and his developing relationship with Carfax, a student from a family long steeped in Le Grande Jeu.
In the “present day” section we find out more about the politics outside Montverre, and how even a closed institution can’t cut itself off entirely from the outside world. A place of pure study is becoming infiltrated by the tightening political agenda of The Party. All small steps, but these add up.
We also follow Leo’s developing relationship with Claire, the Magister Ludi – the only woman in Montverre.
There are other people here. The Rat lives in the shadows, stealing food and clothing. She has a different relationship with Montverre, the only home she has ever known. What happens when someone else seeks sanctury in her hidden world?
We hear the different voices of these people – Leo now, and through his boyhood diary. His dilemmas, his striving. Claire – full of mystery, isolated, struggling with the past. The Rat – just trying to survive, denying her humanity to stay alive.
There are betrayals here, but they are complex and realistic. Many of them are well-intentioned. Many of them are so small as to seem irrelevant. Collins shows us the consequences, but never forgets the humanity of the protagonists.
There are faint echoes of Gormenghast and of the Glass Bead Game, but Collins has made this book entirely her own. It’s atmospheric, it’s mesmerising, it’s spell-binding. I would thoroughly recommend.