The Knave of Secrets

Book cover: The Knave of Secrets - Alex LivingstonWhen an ex-magician turned card sharp is pressured into ensuring a nobleman loses his stake in a high profile tournament, Valen and his crew find themselves in possession of a secret that could upset the delicate political balance that keeps the island of Valtiffe independent. And, y’know, get them all killed.

The Knave of Secrets was one of those books I was immensely excited to read, but which left remarkably little impression on me having read it. It’s a shame, because it’s perfectly good fantasy about the mayhem that can ensue from con men and card sharps getting involved in international politics.

I got off to a difficult start, finding the early chapters stodgy and inelegant. The opening hijinks were attention-grabbing, but the exposition-heavy second chapter interrupted the gathering steam. Even the quotes at the start of each chapter soon wore thin, feeling more like world-building flourishes rather than adding to the narrative (your mileage may vary; I find this sort of thing very hit and miss).

However, things began to fall into place as I persevered. I enjoyed the choice of period (18th century) and cultural influence (French Mediterranean), which resulted in a world of tricorns, wigs and firearms inhabited by thuggish gangs, struggling merchants, grasping aristocrats and a conniving Brotherhood of magicians. My biggest delight – other than it focusing on middle-aged characters whose lives have never quite come together the way they hoped – was how mundane the world seemed in spite of its two rival forms of magic. It worked for me: magic is everything to those who wield it… but most people don’t, so it doesn’t really affect them. Or so they think.

Our protagonists do all wield magic: Valen and Teneriève studied divination at the Séminaire until they were thrown out; and argumentative former pirate Jacquemin is a witch. But their real talent is for cards and cons. The tight crew run rings against most opponents; they’re excellent card players, but they’re also ruthless in cheating their way to victory.

…and they’re going to need to be. A sequence of events forces them into a job that is clearly a set up; and it escalates into a horror show that leaves them under no illusions about their slender chances of survival. But playing the odds is what this crew does best; even when it involves outwitting the Séminaire, the agents of three nations and the street gang who set them up in the first place. As the stakes escalate, it becomes clear that not just the crew’s survival is at stake but the future of Valtiffe itself – and if all this sounds like exactly my jam it’s because it is.

The Knave of Secrets is set on a small island caught between the influences of two great empires, and it becomes increasingly obvious that a great deal of chicanery is in progress to shift the balance of voting rights to ensure the next referendum will see Valtiffe vote to join the Cadois empire. The notion that rival empires can be kept at bay if the crew do a really good job of manipulating gaming tables is faintly absurd but dramatically satisfying.

In the end, though, I struggled to care about the outcome. While I found the characters’ backgrounds interesting, I never warmed up to them enough to care what happened to them. This wasn’t helped by the second half of the book relying heavily on the crew keeping secrets from one another for their own good – one of the most annoying tropes, that makes me actively want things to end badly. I found the antagonists just as frustrating as they kept spelling out their actions to make it clear how clever and subtle they were; there’s a theme here around misplaced arrogance, to be sure, but it would have been nice if one of them had lived up to their claims.

That said, I can’t fault the world-building, which Alex Livingston did a great job of layering in – it was never overwhelming (and only occasionally expositional) and I always had just enough context for each new plot development to make sense. Looking back, there’s lots of aspects of the setting I’d be happy to see explored further; Livingston has created an expansive world that could provide a fascinating setting for many future tales.

I also enjoyed that at its heart – in spite of its regional politics and dirty gameplay – The Knave of Secrets is primarily about finding family and building community. I always have time for stories that invest in trust, acceptance and forgiveness, and the themes feel earned here.

So: a mixed bag overall. Although I may hesitate to read further stories about these specific characters, I will keep an eye on Alex Livingston – while The Knave of Secrets feels rough around the edges, it has good bones and I’m curious to see how Livingston’s work develops in future.

THE KNAVE OF SECRETS is out now from Solaris Books, to whom I am grateful for an advance review copy.