The Knave Of Secrets by Alex Livingston

The Blurb On The Back:

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 the 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 …

THE KNAVE OF SECRETS by Alex Livingston was released in the United Kingdom and in the United States on 7th June 2022.  Thanks to Rebellion Publishing for the review copy of this book

You can order THE KNAVE OF SECRETS by Alex Livingston from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Valen Quinol lives in the small island nation of Valtiffe with his wife, Marguerite (the daughter of merchants who runs her own business trading fabrics).  Together they have plans for setting up their own casino in the capital of Saut-Leronne but to do that, they need a serious amount of money.  

Valen’s acquaintances and neighbours think that he’s a respectable (if dull) book keeper.  In reality, he’s a professional card sharp who runs crooked games against unwary players with the help of his associates Teneriève “Ten” Cassell and Jacquemin “Jaq” Erdannes.  Jaq is a former sailor, born into a fishing family in the coastal town of La Ruse who  sought his fortune on bigger boats and during a spot of piracy learnt how to carry out the witchcraft of the sea and also got a taste for gambling.  Ten is a Mistigri (a nomad people who wander the world trading between people after a volcanic explosion obliterated their lands and whose pale complexion makes them viewed with suspicion and targeted for hatred) and like Valen, studied divination magic with the Brothers of the Séminaire (the only woman to be admitted) but was never fully accepted.  Valen was her only friend friend there and when he got himself thrown out for challenging the Séminaire‘s orthodox views on magic, she was encouraged to leave shortly after.

Quinol’s activities have not escaped the notice of local gangland boss Hagues Arbelan, the leader of the Naughty Knaves who coerces Quinol into taking part in the Forbearance Game – a very high stakes, invitation-only card game where people stake their most important secrets – and agrees to put up the stake.  All he wants in return is for Quinol to destroy a local noble man called Clavis Dusmenil.  

It isn’t long though before Quinol and his crew realise that there are more important things to lose than money as the Forbearance Games is just part of a wider political game that sees gangsters vie with each other for territory, the Brothers keen to maintain their power base and the Empire of Cadois and the Queendom of L’Ombre compete for territory that even includes control of Valtiffe itself …

Alex Livingston’s fantasy novel combines gambling and politics with intricate world building.  Unfortunately, the pacing lags, the relationships don’t convince (notably Ten and Quinol) and the geopolitics political is confusing.  I enjoyed the 18th century French inspiration and Livingston’s put a lot of thought into his card games so while I wouldn’t rush to read further books in this world, I’d check out his other work.

The first thing to say about this book is that Livingston has put a huge amount of thought into the card and other gambling games played in his world.  Each chapter is preceded by extracts from fictional works about gambling and gaming and there are three appendices at the back of the book setting out types of games, a history of a particular type of playing cards and reference books for those interested in gaming.  If you’re someone who is into that type of detail then this will absolutely be your vibe and I do admire the dedication and thought that has gone into that type of world building. However, for me it was precisely that level of detail that got in the way of the action and worked to slow down the pace.  To be fair, I’m not actually someone who is into card games generally (enjoy reading fiction about it; do not care to play) so the kind of information and asides that Livingston builds in just wasn’t my wheelhouse.  Again, if that sounds like your jam then I think you will definitely dig it.

For me, the focus on gambling and games comes at the expense of the development of the geopolitical elements.  As the book goes on, it becomes more clear that the events are related to an ongoing rivalry between Cadois and L’Ombre with Valtiffe finding itself squashed in the middle.  However, I frequently found myself confused as to which faction was aligned with which country and I was also confused at times as to why Valtiffe was so important to either of them and what each was hoping to get from it.  This isn’t helped by the fact that some of the chapters are told from the point of view of Ambassador Omer-Guy Bendine (who works for Cadois but whom there is a strong implication may also have divided loyalties) and Dona Ariadna de Alodesal y Juegon (known as Ria) who’s the Ambassador for L’Ombre but also has her own agenda as well (the nature of which I, again, didn’t fully understand).  

Then there’s the Séminaire which seems to have its own agenda re the fate of Valtiffe, the nature of which is never fully set out.  There’s another viewpoint character here in the shape of Michel, a Brother of the Séminaire but for me he just adds a layer of confusion because although I understood his own personal ambitious drives, I did not get any better sense of what the Séminaire wanted, which is frustrating given that it’s the main magical driver in this book and is an institution that both Ten and Quinol belonged to. It’s one of those situations where I wished that Livingston had plumped for telling more than trying to show because I really did need it spelling out for me more firmly than what we get.

Character-wise although the book starts promisingly with Quinol, Ten and Jaq fleecing a nobleman out of his money over a card game only for the nobleman to decide to take matters into his own hands, there is no real development of the bare bones relationship between them.  One of the core relationships in the book should be that between Quinol and Ten – they were students together at the Séminaire and Quinol met his wife because Ten was Marguerite‘s childhood friend – but there is very little interaction between them and no conversation where Livingston makes a convincing case for the two being close to each other.  Indeed, Livingston actually goes in the opposite direction with Quinol deliberately locking Ten out of certain decisions and not heed her advice.  This should have had more emotional punch than it does, especially as it drives Ten to make a critical decision of her own about half way through but because there’s no emotional core to draw on, I just didn’t care about it.  Indeed, I was a bit irritated about Ten’s decision because given everything that had happened to her, there just wasn’t enough to convince me as to why she makes the decision she does or what she hopes to get out of it.  

Similarly, despite the background between Ten and Marguerite, the one real scene between them doesn’t ring emotionally true in terms of their history together and what each is hoping to get out of the interaction.  I think this isn’t helped by the fact that Marguerite and Quinol’s marriage also doesn’t ring true – Livingston doesn’t really show any love between the two of them and their relationship at times seems more like a business partnership than anything else.  This is a shame because there was a lot of scope there for more with Livingston setting out how Marguerite‘s parents disapprove of Quinol so I wanted to know what kept her with him.

In contrast Jaq has very little to do and could easily be cut without missing anything.  He seems to mainly exist to highlight the difference between the type of magic that Quinol and Ten do and the witchcraft that he practices and run errands and highlight Ten’s “otherness”, which is fine but doesn’t add a huge amount.

Ria’s chapters are quite frustrating because for someone who is clever enough to run her own successful casino and manoeuvre her way into a position of power and political influence, she’s also one of those characters who is conveniently stupid when the plot needs it.  For example, there are two scenes where she acts impulsively in a way that ultimately hurts her cause and she apparently learns nothing from either of them.  I was left wondering what it is that she actually wanted or hoped to get from it.  Omer-Guy’s chapters are frustrating for a similar reason with Livingston hinting at something personal being at play but never going all out and describing exactly what is driving him and what his end game is.

Plot wise, I found that the action moved a little too slowly for my blood.  The Forbearance Games doesn’t take place until about half way through and then there’s a lot of travelling about trying to work out what the various secrets mean.  Livingston also leans heavily on characters having secret plans that manifest at the last moment to get them out of sticky situations, which does become a bit dull after a while.

On the plus side, I did like the 18th century French flavour that Livingston pulls on to add colour to his world building.  All the names have a quasi-French vibe to them, the games between aristocrats and geopolitical struggles over territory and resources have a strong colonial feel and the fashions and clothing that Livingston describes all seem very of the period. 

Ultimately, I came away from the book feeling that it just wasn’t for me.  There’s a lot of potential here but it didn’t deliver upon it.  I wouldn’t rush to read any more books set in this world, but I would check out Livingston’s other work.  

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