TLDR: A slightly eerie story that’s more vibes~ than plot, this book presents a curious mix of dark academia and dystopia to tell a story that had me on the edge of my seat as much as it had me confused about what was going on! The story centres around an educational institution, Montverre, where they focus on playing the grand jeu. The characters in this story are all flawed and complex, and although I didn’t particularly like any of them in the beginning, this changed as they all developed throughout the book. The story has underlying commentary about social exclusion through gender and faith, and particularly about France, which is where this book is ostensibly set. The worldbuilding here is not so other as to make this book a fantasy, but despite its similarities to our world, there are still enough differences to create something new.
Book: The Betrayals by Bridget Collins
Synopsis: In an exclusive institution tucked away in the mountains the best and brightest study an arcane and mysterious game, as they have for centuries. But times are changing, and traditions being overturned – the truth will come out…
(Reading time: 5 mins)
This is the second book for adults by Bridget Collins, and a release I was very excited for because of how much I loved her first, The Binding. I think reading this has cemented my opinion that what this author excels at most is creating an overwhelmingly captivating atmosphere. Each layer of worldbuilding is delicately crafted. From hints of character backstory to external characters who both make up the crowd and have their own goals and ambitions, this really is a story that seems very complete.
What the story is, well, that’s a little more up in the air. The plot begins with the character of Leo. He’s a politician, who has been nudged out of his ministerial position because he went against the party line (as I said earlier, this borders on a dystopian novel, so the party is only ‘The Party’). He is given a post at his old school, Montverre, of which he has memories both painful and fond, which we see unfold through intermittent chapters of his diary. The switch between Leo’s third-person POV and the first-person POV of his young self’s diary was phenomenal. Each time I was caught up in the story I was reading and the switch would hurl me into a different timeline, each time armed with more knowledge about the past that was informing the present. I don’t think Leo is a very likeable character, but that’s irrelevant when he is so well-written.
The other main character is Magister Dryden. She is the Magister Ludi of Montverre Academy, the first woman ever chosen for the position: essentially the most senior role. Her story delves into unpicking gender equality. She faces misogyny that is both antiquated and startlingly everyday. Her whole life has been directed by the fact that she is a woman, and therefore she couldn’t study the grand jeu, and this is explored in the story, simultaneous with her relationship growing with Leo. I enjoyed the interactions of these two characters.
There is another POV character: Rat. That’s the only name we’re introduced to her by. I absolutely love her narration. She’s someone who exists on the edges of society – this story is very concerned with ‘outsiders’ – and as the story progresses she slowly becomes more and more human, regaining an idea of what it is to be a person. Like all the characters in this story, the development throughout is really enjoyable to read, particularly when it adds to the worldbuilding.
So characters aside: what is this book actually about? NGL, I’m still not sure! The author said she was inspired by The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse. There are many similarities. Like this, that story is about a ‘game’ studied by scholars that combines all different areas of knowledge: maths, music, philosophy, in an effort to be the best at it and become a Magister Ludi (Master of the Game). The grand jeu that’s played in The Betrayals is a similar abstract concept, all about intellectualism, which becomes a very fascinating point when, in the story, it is presented by The Party as the antithesis to Christianity and religion, and a nationalist tool for their authoritarianism.
At first, I thought I wasn’t enjoying the story, but sinking into the world of this book, and viewing it, like the game that’s played in it, as a combination of thought exercise and academic application, it really does become engaging. Truthfully, I did find the social critiques here a bit jarring, mostly because I wasn’t entirely sure what the story was trying to say all of the time. For example, one of the characters is Simon, a rare Christian student at Montverre, who has to go into hiding before he gets disappeared. But Simon’s story is also almost the antithesis of Rat’s: he goes into the shadows and starts to lose his humanity. Is this part of the dystopia of the story, or just a failing to provide a more robust social commentary? Idk! I think this is the kind of book that lends itself to multiple analysis really nicely and admittedly I do enjoy that.
If I’m giving the impression here that this story is solely for those who enjoy literary fiction or analysis, it really isn’t. The heart of it is a story about love and well, betrayal, and those betrayals are both big and small in many ways throughout. I also really liked the ending. It was kind of ambiguous but it does fit the actual plot very well. It also fits in well with my own feelings towards the book!
Is it worth the read? Yes! I’d love to know what other people made of it!
Is this better than The Binding? I’m not going to lie — I loved that book. This one had a similar layout in terms of giving you the worldbuilding slowly and (naturally), introducing a world-shaking plot twist, so there are similarities that mean I still really enjoyed it. I think I just like stories about magic, and there’s less of that here than you’d assume.