Anne got this book out of the library as we’d both read another one by her, The Binding, and loved it.
This book follows a similar pattern in that she creates an environment that is familiar yet not quite. Like a parallel universe.
The main setting is a university or academy, called Montverre, built in a remote mountainous area, somewhere in Europe, maybe France. It feels like a medieval, monastic enclave because of its location and because only men can be students or, generally, tutors here. But the world around it seems to be a version of Europe of the 1930s.
We first meet the Rat, a feral child living within the shadows of Montverre, only venturing out at night, stealing necessities sparingly, observing from the edges.
Then there is Léo Martin, a fallen politician, sent back to his alma mater to give credence to the official line: that he wasn’t pushed, but resigned. He had been a high-flying young acolyte for this newly established government until he started to question their directives. A party that had swept into power on the promise of cleaning up the streets, but whose ambitions for ‘purity’ lay wider.
Finally we have the Magister Ludi, the main teacher at the school, and the master of the ‘grand jeu’. A game where the rules are never explained but the raison d’etre of the whole institution. The students learn Maths, Science, History, the Arts and Philosophy, all so they can play the game. The ultimate distillation of ideas. This magister is a woman, Claire Dryden. An aberration, a mistake. Tolerated, because of her brilliance, but only just.
The story unfolds from the perspectives of these three, although there is also a fourth voice, Léo’s diaries from when he was a student.
For anybody who has read Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, the idea of such a school will feel very familiar. Collins takes an apt quote from it at the beginning and acknowledges her debt to it at the end. Yet it’s not necessary to know that book to read this one. Anne hadn’t, and that did not detract from her enjoyment of it.
There are some places where my suspension of disbelief is really tested, but generally it kept me with it and I enjoyed it too, all in all. It is quite lyrical at times and moves at a slow pace, yet there is an undercurrent of emotion and menacing portent that runs through it. There are twists to keep you guessing, and revelations. With Léo, Collins has created a character who comes across as obnoxious and arrogant but still intriguing and vulnerable, and that is a skill indeed.
It wasn’t as fresh an idea as The Binding, the totalitarian tropes are recognisable, but it comes at it from an interesting angle and the story as a whole was a very absorbing read.