Title: The Knave of Secrets
Author: Alex Livingston
Publisher: Rebellion Publishing Ltd.
Publication date: June 7, 2022
One Sentence Summary: When card sharp Valen gets caught in a plot and ends up with a valuable secret, he’s quickly in over his head, but hopes his skill in cheating at gambling games will save him.
The Knave of Secrets is a fantasy novel encompassing the world of card games and gambling. When it comes to the games and cheating at them, the world is rich and detailed, complete with appendices that discuss them. When it comes to the rest of the world, I found the details a little thin and the world thus poorly developed. This novel seems to pull from French and Spanish influences, but it doesn’t carry far to the point where I’m still hazy on the world. I did appreciate that the main character is older and married, but I felt most of the things that made him interesting were off page. As a matter of fact, all the real scheming happened off page and the reader is diverted to another character who is just as surprised as the reader. Overall, this wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but maybe someone who enjoys sharping might be interested.
I normally write my own descriptions, but couldn’t come up with something that made any more sense than the one provided on Amazon:
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 sounded like a really interesting fantasy novel. I liked the idea of combining card games and magic, and it sounded like there’d be some great adventures and intrigue. In the end, this was little more than an interesting premise that felt more like a vehicle for discussing gambling and sharping. Most of the world building went into that aspect, the magic system was a little lean on detail, too much scheming happened off page, and I felt like I was supposed to come away from this thinking how clever Valen must be because he was always a step ahead.
First of all, my reading experience was a little odd. This is clearly a fantasy novel that draws some inspiration from the French and the Spanish, especially in terms of titles, but the writing style felt completely at odds. It reminded me of when I read early 1800s literature, lending the whole book a vague Regency feel in terms of how things were worded and how the characters spoke. Overall, it gave the book an odd stilted quality that held me at arms length and kept me from being immersed in the world and the story.
But, if one is interested in gambling and sharping, The Knave of Secrets creates a whole world of it. Each chapter is preceded by an excerpt from one of several works, most if not all of which have something to do with card games or gambling. There are also two appendices devoted to defining every game mentioned and providing descriptions of every work excerpted from. Clearly, a lot of thought went into the gambling and game aspect of this book. It felt detailed and rich, but not necessarily helpful as the story felt like it wanted to go in the direction of groups of people after Valen for the secret he carries. Unfortunately, the rest of the world suffered. Just based on what one of the queens is called and the titles and names of some of the characters, there are Spanish and French influences, but I didn’t feel any of it trickled down to any other part of the world. I had a terrible time trying to figure out which queen went with which country (still no idea) and what the differences between the two countries were. The only part that felt explored was a people no one liked. I liked the history attached to the Mistigris and the stigma attached to them; it helped add some depth and really did wonders for Tenerieve, the Mistigris woman who is part of Valen’s crew.
Speaking of Tenerieve, I kept getting the feeling the reader, especially towards the end, was supposed to be put in her shoes. She’s clearly an outsider no matter what the other characters say, and I felt her exclusion on a surprisingly deep level. She’s left out of all the plans, making just about everything that happened in the last third as surprising to her as to the reader. Which was annoying because the POV for the character who was doing most of the scheming was given throughout the book and was, indeed, supposed to be the main character (I’m assuming as he’s the only named character in the description despite sharing story telling duties). I can deal with being kept in the dark, but the ending was just rife with it, keeping all the exciting planning and foreshadowing off page seemingly just for the sole purpose of surprising the reader and remarking on, yes, how clever Valen is. Valen clearly has a blank face when he goes into gambling games, and he showcased that exceptionally well in his chapters because he gave not one iota away, making me wonder why he was the main character and why he had his own numerous chapters if all the notable things he was doing were all odd page.
But that’s not to say I didn’t appreciate anything about Valen. Indeed, I appreciated that he’s an older protagonist who also has been married for ten years. The domesticity was fun and I liked that he and his wife’s parents didn’t get along (and those scenes really seemed to pull from Regency-era novels). He’s also nondescript and has seemingly few qualms about doing anything. His wife seems equally ambitious, perhaps more so, and reading the two of them together was fun. The last member of his crew is Jaq, a former sailor who had quite a fun personality and who felt the most unique. I liked how plainly he spoke and how loyal he was to Valen. And then there’s Ria, a noblewoman of this world from the Spanish-inspired side who runs her family’s casino and periodically travels to Valtiffe to hold a tournament. She felt like she should have been a more major character, but her chapters were few and far between, so it was difficult to get a sense of her, though, in the beginning, she was delightfully quick to accuse and think poorly of most people. She made so many mistakes throughout the novel, but, by the end, there wasn’t much to her character even though some intrigue should have played a larger role in the story and put her at the heart of it. Michel was interesting. As a Brother, he has use of magic and seems to act sort of as a spy, but he seems to be quite prone at getting himself into trouble and he felt just as much of a tool as Tenerieve. Lastly, there was Omer-Guy, an ambassador from the French side who schemes, but, other than enjoying spying on other people, I have no real idea of what his role was supposed to be or why he was marked as a main character worthy of his own chapters.
Ostensibly, The Knave of Secrets is supposed to be about Valen being caught between two groups of people who want the secret he won. He’s supposed to be in over his head in a game that’s being played at a higher level but ends up on his own lower one. There are the queens of the two countries and their ambassadors, but I couldn’t quite tell what they were playing at, especially when one of the notable ladies of the island became involved. What any of them wanted I had a hard time picking out. It seemed like one wanted the secret and the other wanted to keep it a secret, but what it meant in terms of war and the ending was just a little confusing since the world isn’t fully built and the story, frankly, felt a little meandering until it hit on how it wanted to end. Then there’s the Brothers, the men who live in a tower that hovers over the town and who practice magic, but keep much hidden, meaning I have no clue how their magic was supposed to work and I have so many questions, like is magic something the Brothers just develop and anyone, provided they are male, can study to become a Brother? The idea of Valen being caught between all these groups sounds like a fascinating story and I would have loved to see more scheming and intrigue, but so much of the story was devoted to how to play card games and how Valen was cheating at them and expounding on how great a gambler Valen is.
The Knave of Secrets had a lot of the ingredients to make for a fascinating, rich fantasy, but it felt like it got sidetracked into a part of the world that shouldn’t have played such a huge role. Granted, that is the world the main character operates in, but the story is greater than him. There’s so much more I wanted from this book. In the end, it wasn’t quite my cup of tea with a poorly defined world and magic system and too much of the interesting, foreshadowing parts happening off page.
How many cups of tea will you need?
Get your copy (The Lily Cafe is NOT an Amazon affiliate)
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
Pin this! (mostly a reminder to myself, but also an invitation to you!)
This blog is my home base, but you can also find me on: