Today I’m joining The Write Reads blog tour for The Knave of Secrets by Alex Livingston, which is out next month from Rebellion Publishing.
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
A twisty tale of magicians, con artists and card games, where secrets are traded and gambled like coin, for fans of The Lies of Locke Lamora and The Mask of Mirrors.
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 that 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 is a book that has left me with somewhat mixed feelings. I absolutely loved the premise, and was excited to see it play out – and the idea is wonderful, but it was the execution that I wasn’t completely sold on. I will say the blurb pretty much encompasses the entire plot.
I think the main issue boils down to the fact that this book could have done with being longer, as a lot is happening in this book. I will say that I did enjoy the worldbuilding a lot – also there were maps!! Livingston clearly put a lot of care and detail into the world, there’s a lot of history and lore, and layers of intrigue and while the story was very focused on Valen’s group against this backdrop, I loved the feeling that there was more happening beyond the border of the story. Although sometimes the delivery, especially information on the games, ended up feeling a little heavy-handed and slowed down the pacing, although the appendix at the back was a great asset. But, the games were a fantastic addition to the worldbuilding and the culture, and not something I had seen on this scale, where it was such an integral part of so many levels of society, and it made for a very refreshing take on fantasy – and I loved the stakes that were involved. I also loved that there were snippets from texts between each chapter, which is one of my favourite things to find in fantasy books and a great tool to add extra layers to the worldbuilding.
The magic in the world of The Knave of Secrets was fantastic, and it felt like the system fell nicely in the middle of soft and hard. Here again we see the author’s attention to detail, and again the variety gave great depth to the world – and some of my favourite moments in the book were those that were focused on the magic.
It did feel as though this was a world that wanted more space. The level of detail would certainly have lent itself to a longer story, and I would have loved to have spent more time exploring the world and the magic system.
The action in this book is a lot more understated than in a lot of fantasy, in that there weren’t massive battle scenes, but more battles of wit and skill at the table. We’re pretty much dropped straight into this with the beginning, and it was a great way to establish how this book was going to play out. I’m also not sure how deliberate it was, but with the way, the intrigue and cons play out, and how information is provided particularly around reveal moments, it felt that as the reader we were also being pulled into the con. On some brilliant levels, and really added to the feel of the book and focus on the intrigue aspect, but there were points where it was a little frustrating, as that information would have made investment in the story and characters a lot easier. I think in a longer story, that information or at least more hints could have been woven into the story, and with the twists and turns in this story, I don’t think it would have detracted from the feeling of intrigue.
Another reason the length worked against it, is that it sometimes felt as though character depth and development were second to the plot and worldbuilding, which made it harder to become invested in the characters and with an ensemble cast and multiple POVs I needed that investment. I enjoyed Jac and Valen as characters, but it felt like some of the others struggled in comparison and while I didn’t dislike them, they weren’t characters I particularly cared for in one way or another. I will say though, that even though some of this depth was also missing in the relationship between Valen and Marguerite, I did enjoy seeing a married couple that wasn’t at odds or broken apart by tragedy, and it added a nice component to this book.
As much as I enjoyed the worldbuilding, I think it was Livingston’s writing that really sold me on The Knave of Secrets as it was immensely readable, and some of the strongest character moments really came through in the dialogue for me.a
Overall this was a fun read, and I really enjoyed the setting and worldbuilding, and would certainly be interested in seeing more stories within this world, and I really hope that the author isn’t done with this setting. There were also some wonderfully refreshing elements, from the use of games to intrigue-based action rather than swords and epic scale battles to the relationship between Valen and Marguerite. One to check out if you’re a fan of heists and intrigue, and something a little different.
Alex Livingston grew up in various quiet New England towns before moving to Buffalo, NY to study English at Canisius College. He writes SFF prose and interactive fiction. Alex is married and lives in an old house with his brilliant wife and a pile of aged videogame systems.