If everything in your life was based on a lie, would you risk it all to tell the truth?
At Montverre, an exclusive academy tucked away in the mountains, the best and brightest are trained for excellence in the grand jeu: an arcane and mysterious contest. Léo Martin was once a student there, but lost his passion for the grand jeu following a violent tragedy. Now he returns in disgrace, exiled to his old place of learning with his political career in tatters.
Montverre has changed since he studied there, even allowing a woman, Claire Dryden, to serve in the grand jeu’s highest office of Magister Ludi. When Léo first sees Claire he senses an odd connection with her, though he’s sure they have never met before. Both Léo and Claire have built their lives on lies. And as the legendary Midsummer Game, the climax of the year, draws closer, secrets are whispering in the walls…
This book is an absolute masterpiece! When I picked it up, I was uncertain, because though I loved her first adult novel, The Binding, I was worried that this one would be a little too complicated, and that I would abandon it before getting fully into it. It doesn’t help that the last two books I read this past week -both of which I had really been looking forward to- disappointed me, and I just needed something to stop me sliding into a slump. I can absolutely say The Betrayals did that and more!
The book follows serval threads; The Rat, a shadowy figure living her life in hiding in the dark corners of Montverre, Léo Martin in the present, Claire Dryden in the present, and Léo’s journal from when he first attended Montverre ten years before the current events take place. All of these string together so beautifully, and actually the structure of the story made me think, by the end, of the grand jeu, the game the characters study and perform in their school. The book opens with a point of view from The Rat, and this was the perfect way to draw me into the world, because her narrative is immediate, simple; she is a young girl struggling to survive in a place she should not be, so she has become something that will slip beneath people’s notice: a rat. Despite this though, the Rat is intimately connected to Montverre, and through this unique perspective I was hooked. I enjoyed her chapters, and also really appreciated the fact that, apart from being just another perspective, her narrative thread was woven through that of the other characters, too.
‘They will try to make her human, and hate her when they fail. She knows enough about the world to know that.’
Then there are the alternations between Léo and Claire, and this strange world of the grand jeu. It took me a long time to even begin to understand what characters might be describing when talking about it. They mentioned music, maths, movement, and I honestly still don’t entirely understand, but I gather that it’s something performed, something that they often refer to as worship, and something that creates metaphors to view the world with. In an author’s note at the end of the book, Collins says that ‘The Betrayals was in part inspired by Hermann Hesse’s brilliant novel The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi),’ which I have not read and know nothing about, so I might investigate and see if that brings more to light for me. But not understanding this central element of the story didn’t take away from my enjoyment, because the way Collins describes it throughout the novel is so full of life that I can picture it in the abstract.
‘The grand jeu is not a game. It is the opposite of a game. It is our way of paying attention to something outside ourselves. And what is outside ourselves – whatever truly exists – is the divine. We remake the world so that we can submit to it; and what we encounter, in the act of playing the grand jeu, is the truth.’
It’s hard to talk about this book without giving things away, because there are some achingly good twists in it. Essentially, though, the story follows Léo as he is banished to his old school Montverre after opposing a new bill being passed by his Party, which is currently moving the country towards a ‘pure’ society, eradicating religion and all foreign influence. At Montverre he meets Claire, who is the first and only woman ever to be appointed Magister, and though they have never met there is something familiar in their interactions, and they play a dance of power and information throughout. Despite the twists, the whole narrative has this great sense of inevitability in it, and the characters all feel as if they are spinning towards something inescapable. Collins is really skilled at creating this background tension, especially by using the contrast of past and present, so that even during scenes where the characters are full of joy, you can feel the next disaster looming. It makes for very emotional reading, and I loved the way it tugged at my heartstrings.
What Collins also does very well is longing. Each character wants something, and in some cases it is one of the other characters, and it can be hard to write pining and mutual pining in a way that isn’t repetitive or overwhelming, and I think The Betrayals (and The Binding, for that matter) does it perfectly. There is a sense of longing even in the ending, which can also be hard to do, but I was happy with the way it was executed. The final pages left me wondering, and in some ways wanting to see more, but I was also satisfied with it.
I’m so glad I decided to pick this up; I read it in just over a day and I’m sure I will be thinking of it for many more to come. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Happy reading!
Published: 12th November 2020 by HarperCollins
Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction
Narration style: Third person present tense, as well as first person diary entires and letters
Format read: Hardback
Copy owned: Yes
Trigger Warnings: suicide, death, bullying, blood, child neglect, persecution, and strong misogyny
3 thoughts on “Review: The Betrayals by Bridget Collins”
I adored The Betrayals and I’m so happy to see someone else loved it just as much since it’s kind of weird. This is a great review. Personally amazed you were able to write such a long one without spoiling anything 😄
I relate to what you say about the grand jeu. I don’t really understand it either, but I’m also not sure whether I’m supposed to. I think it’s a possibility that Collins intended for it to be something abstract that is there to show some kind of beauty.
I also really liked your point about longing being something prevalent in both The Betrayals and The Binding. I hadn’t made that connection but it’s so true!
Thank you, that’s such a lovely comment! It was definitely a hard book to discuss without giving away too much! I also got the feeling that was the grand jeu is isn’t what’s important but it’s how the characters use it and talk about it that reveals the story and their relationships. I’m really glad to talk to someone else who liked it because I don’t know anyone else who’s read it so far!
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