When student Léo Martin first approaches Montverre, an exclusive seat of learning high in the mountains, his path is blocked by a “cobweb ... huge, a billowing sail of silver ... on every intersection ... tiny beads of dew”. Hesitating, he reluctantly breaks through, feeling the “infinitesimal cling of threads on his face”. That web of cultural connections, at once an exquisite structure and a means of entrapment, forms a recurrent motif in Bridget Collins’s ingenious, yet strangely empty and overblown, second fantasy novel for adults.
Conflicted and outsiderly, Collins’s protagonists struggle in the net of a dystopian one-party state. This is a ruthless patriarchy where dissidents are summarily disappeared and women are relegated to the domestic sphere of “Home, Husband and Happiness”, a neatly sardonic riff on National Socialism’s Kinder, Küche, Kirche. Montverre is a kind of archaic Oxbridge, where the male scholarly elite is taught the rules of a high-stakes cultural game, the grand jeu.
Following seven fantasy novels for young adults, Collins’s immensely successful first adult novel, 2019’s The Binding, played beguilingly with the magic of storytelling and the psychology of reading through an appealing first person narrator. Both the controlling ideas and the structure are far more ambitious in The Betrayals, which employs multiple perspectives, intricate plotting and a recondite frame of reference. It’s a jeu d’esprit, an exuberant melange of genres that includes fantasy, gothic, fable, political allegory, romance, mystery and scholastic parody. The novel is heavily indebted to Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, in which adepts synthesise aspects of “the whole intellectual cosmos”, although Collins also critiques Hesse’s misogynist notion of high culture as the province of male sages.
Montverre is first seen through the eyes of a gothic character known only as The Rat: rapacious, fearful, famished, and possibly not a rat at all. “Tonight the moonlight makes the floor of the Great Hall into a game board.” The Rat observes an anomalous figure in white, the “female-male, the odd one out” wandering in the shadows. By a fluke, a brilliant woman, Claire Dryden, has been appointed Magister Ludi, Master of the Game.
The adult Léo, ex-Minister of Culture, returns to Montverre, having failed at the brutal game of politics. He is haunted by the memory of violence and treachery in his own past. How did he injure his fellow pupil, Aimé Carfax de Courcey? What have Claire, Aimé and Léo in common? He and Claire suffer a shocked sense of deja vu, repelling and attracting one another. Consumed by their secrets, they inhabit a realm of trauma, echoed in the “child’s voice sobbing its heart out” in the walls at night, a metaphor perhaps for the sorrow of the characters’ hidden selves.
Characterisation is generally melodramatic, emotions unmediated and visceral. The plot slowly reveals and reprises the events of 10 years before, partly through the characters’ emerging memories and partly through Léo’s somewhat stilted student diary. Inhabiting Claire’s flinching self-consciousness, the novel demonstrates how it feels to live under sexism, as well as the gap between private self and public role.
All Collins’s characters acknowledge the charisma of the abstruse and arcane grand jeu. But what exactly is it, I wondered? Could I play? A tune called “The Bridges of Königsberg” runs through Léo’s mind, “a stuck record, the movement between the melody and the first development of the Eulerian path”. If you happen to know that the Seven Bridges of Königsberg is a mathematical problem solved negatively by Leonhard Euler in 1736 that laid the foundations of graph theory, that knowledge may help you – but pondering (as I did) the Russian assault on the city of Immanuel Kant in January 1945 probably won’t. The mystifying rigmarole of faux learning that runs through The Betrayals surrounds an empty centre. That is part of the point. Escaping the web of the competitive game to redeem a truer self may prove a more intelligent and demanding art.
The novel’s deepest commitment is to keeping you guessing, gambling, tricked, entertained, through a double plot rich in duplicities, doppelgangers, cross-dressers, puzzles and riddles. Collins’s story holds everything up its sleeve for as long as possible, with a final twist that you may or not see coming, but the real game is that played by the author with and against the reader.
• The Betrayals is published by Borough (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.