I’m sticking to my promise to read only books by women this year, and Claire North is still dominating my reading schedule. It’s been ages since I’ve found an author whose back catalogue I decide I have to read immediately, and so far the effort has been rewarded tenfold. She’s ace. Fortunately for other authors, I think I’m about to catch up with her books (at least under this pseudonym – she has three), so expect a broader range of reviews going forward!
Here’s what I got through in June.
The Master, Claire North – A third and final visit to the Gameshouse, which takes the conceit of this little series (in which Players battle one another in games using the real world as board and pieces) to its natural conclusion. Where the first story concentrated on a political contest in a city, and the second a game of hide and seek in a country, now the full board is in play. One of the oldest and most skilled of Players, who has been quietly accumulating pieces in the background of the previous tales, steps forward to challenge the House. The pieces are Everyone and Everything. The board is Everywhere.
This is an incredibly dense novella, covering a staggering amount of incident in few pages, but it never feels like a trudge. North has a gift for swift, alluring characterisation that allows her to throw secondary characters in and out of events at ridiculous speed, giving the impression that the book is packed when in truth it only really has two characters. The action is startling, as politics, culture, and economics are weaponised and deployed alongside armies and cyber warriors, yet North keeps her focus so tightly wrapped around the narrator and challenger Silver that the book retains the humour and intimacy of the previous instalments. At its core the book is less about war (though it has much to say about how the mighty discard the weak) than it is about humanity itself, and the dualism (order and chaos) which fuels it. This is a thrilling and provocative read in its own right, and wraps the whole trilogy up as something incredibly special.
The End of the Day, Claire North – It should be noted that North’s previous books have set a very high standard, and acknowledged that The End of the Day fails to meet that bar. The book follows Charlie, who has found himself working as the harbinger of Death (with admin support from the office in Milton Keynes). He goes before Death, sometimes as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning, but always as a witness. Therein lies the books weakness – it’s largely episodic, dropping in and out of moments all over the world but only ever as a passive third party. The stories and concepts are strong (I particularly liked that Death comes for ideas as well as people), but the link between them is often nebulous. While there is a cumulative effect on Charlie – for he sees the worst of mankind, and is not necessarily built for it – it’s slow and subtle, with the payoff indistinct. The book feels more like a string of thematically linked novellas with Charlie as a bridge between them than it does a single novel with something distinct to say.
With that said, it’s often beautiful, frequently harrowing, and (unusually for North) affectingly nihilistic. That it lacks direction doesn’t remove the power of the individual moments it describes, but there is not the satisfying dovetail of concepts and characters at the end which has marked her other books. I loved it less than her other novels, but loved it nonetheless.