Slowly, twistily, the secrets, deceptions and treacheries that connect them are revealed. While the spectre of fascism and its evils is half-heartedly conjured, tending to fade in and out, there’s Harry Potter-ish pleasures to be had getting lost in Montverre’s labyrinthine corridors and the byzantine intricacies of the game.
Following seven fantasy novels for young adults, Collins’s immensely successful first adult novel, 2019’s The Binding, played beguilingly with the magic of storytelling and the psychology of reading through an appealing first person narrator. Both the controlling ideas and the structure are far more ambitious in The Betrayals, which employs multiple perspectives, intricate plotting and a recondite frame of reference. It’s a jeu d’esprit, an exuberant melange of genres that includes fantasy, gothic, fable, political allegory, romance, mystery and scholastic parody... Collins’s story holds everything up its sleeve for as long as possible, with a final twist that you may or not see coming, but the real game is that played by the author with and against the reader.
The only environment more fertile for betrayals than a Soviet-esque political party is probably a university staff room, and the novel lives up to its name. There are crossings, double-crossings, denouncements and defrockings — and that’s before anyone drags love into the perilous equation. Collins summons a Gormenghast-esque richness of place and people, but while Mervyn Peake’s imagination feels out of control, The Betrayals is a perfectly constructed work of fiction, with audacious twists that clumsier hands would fumble, and irresistibly moving emotional beats. (Collins also writes about sex with real tenderness grounded in character, which is a rare skill.)
If you’re looking for an absorbing, transporting work of fiction – and why would you not be? – The Betrayals is just the thing. It’s set in an unnamed European country in the 1930s, in an elite, remote university named Montverre, which is dedicated to the study of the mysterious grand jeu – a subtle game bringing together elements of music, mathematics and meditation, in order to allow “communion with the divine”. Collins was inspired by the Glass Bead Game of Hermann Hesse’s novel, and her descriptions of the grand jeu remain equally enticing and elusive.
Following The Binding comes this brilliant new novel. It's set in Mntverre, an all-male academy where only the best study a mysterious game, the grand jeu. One of its former students, Leo Martin, returns to find a woman has joined the academy — the spiky Claire Dryden. As traditions are challenged and secrets revealed, these two learn to face the truth. A captivating, imaginative tale.