Title: The Knave of Secrets
Author: Alex Livingston
Release Date: 7/6/22
E.S.C.A.P.E Score: 45
(see below for breakdown)
I received a free Advanced copy from Rebellion publishing, then invited to join the Tour by The Write Reads in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
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…
I have always said I love a heist book, and this is a good honest heist book. We start with Valen and his crew mid action, flexing their skills as card sharps and I thought this was a great way for us to get to know the crew and their various roles in the con. It also introduced us to the varying perspectives the book is told from. There are 5 perspectives in total from the various countries, in and out of the gang and various political hierarchies too. Initially this was a little confusing. It took me a while to work out whom everyone was with respect to each other and the world, and some perspectives being introduced fairly late in the book. However once I worked all that out I found it gave the reader a great fly on the wall sort of feel. We saw the action from all sides, switching perspectives to get little bits of information that only that person was party too. It gave a real solid sense for the political background, the historical background of the world, the magic system and how various people utilised magic.
The world building was also expanded greatly by the interstitials between each chapter/perspective switch. These were little excerpts from in world books on various topics around card games, dice and casino gaming. Again these all had their own varying intended audiences with different social hierarches. I loved that the author included a bibliography of them with a short description of how and where they were published and their availability to the people of this world. They gave to much fun insight into the games invented for this world how they were played, the etiquette expected at the tables and how the games are cheated. There were also little punches of history of the world, again centred at the gaming tables, attitudes to the empire, cultural and social insights that really built up this world.
I defiantly was more drawn to the perspectives of Valen and Ten more than the others but that’s because those two being part of Valen’s crew focused more of the art of the Con and how their jobs were put together. I found Tens background fascinating, and I felt her storyline had the most potential. Michel was also interesting giving us insight into the magic and divination systems of the world. I didn’t find the more political perspectives as entertaining, even though I love a good political machination plot, I just felt they were a bit dry when compared to the others, They seemed to function as information dumps so we the reader could understand the second half of the plot.
I really loved that the characters were older too. They felt established in their lives and that they had developed the clear skillsets and knowledge to undertake their various roles. A lot of heist books do the ‘assembling the crew’ much like Oceans 11 but when that’s done with teenagers of 20 somethings it just doesn’t feel they have had the time to build the reputations, to make the mistakes and learn the way older characters do. I loved that we had a crew that were already working together many years and knew each others strengths and weaknesses.
I do feel a lot of the plot in at least the first half of the book is given away by the blurb. It does dampen the tension a little when the outcome has already been shared and it has the problem of making the build up also feel a little slow. But as I said before, I am a fan of the heist/con crew plot and have re-watched BBC’s Hustle a million times and still enjoy the thrill of the con even though I know what’s going to happen and I still found this build up exciting enough. However, what happens after that point is just so much fun, we get stuck into the political intrigue, espionage and trying to prevent all out war! It is an exciting read.
Overall I really enjoyed how complex a world Livingston had created, all the carious games, rules and then how to cheat at them were just so interesting. The Magic system(s) were complex and the backstory of the Nations involved was really well rounded. I thought the majority of the characters were well thought out, with enough depth to carry the story.