‘The Betrayals’ is gorgeous, atmospheric, character-driven historical fantasy at its finest. It’s slow-paced, but there’s a constant underlying sense of danger that keeps it engaging throughout.
Unlike the majority of readers, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Collins’ adult debut, ‘The Binding’ – it started far too slowly, without the atmosphere to back it up. However, it grew into itself as it went on, and I had high hopes that Collins’ sophomore effort might have fixed the teething issues. These wishes have been fulfilled. The characters are far more engaging and likeable, the atmosphere more effective, the pacing perfectly balanced. There are minor quibbles, but this is a much more enjoyable read.
‘The Betrayals’ is set at an exclusive college, Montverre, dedicated to studying the national game – the grand jeu. This mysterious game is part mathematics, part music, and – it could be claimed – part magic. Léo Martin won the Gold Medal for his grand jeu as a second year – an almost unprecedented achievement – but subsequently left academia for politics. Now, disgraced from the ruling political party, he finds himself exiled back to Montverre. But things have changed in the last ten years, and there are many parts of Léo’s past – parts he hasn’t thought about in years – he doesn’t want coming back to haunt him.
There are three POV characters – Léo, the disgraced politician; Claire, the first female Magister Ludi in history; and the Rat, a mysterious figure who hides in the passageways of Montverre. There are also regular interludes – written in first person, unlike the rest which are in third – from Léo’s diary as a student at Montverre. I’m not always a fan of the first person, but these were some of my favourite parts – Léo now is a politician for a fascist party and a resounding misogynist, whereas Léo then was a bully, but had many more redeeming features. The complexity of those entries turns him into a character you can understand and empathise with.
Claire is an intriguing character. Montverre is an all-male institution, and as the first female Magister Ludi she has a point to prove. She’s strong and clever, but can be abrasive. Her interactions with Léo are intricately written, and I suspect I’ll appreciate them even more on a reread.
The Rat is my one major quibble with the book. She’s not a bad character, but she doesn’t fit well with the rest of the story – I feel like she could be removed and the tale told just as effectively, and possibly more tautly. At its heart, this is Léo and Claire’s story – the other characters are almost superfluous distractions.
This is a character-driven story, and whilst the plot is clever, it’s less important than the intersecting relationships and character dynamics. It’s almost like crossing Collins’ debut with ‘The Secret History’ – a mashup of historical fantasy-lite with dark academia and a generous helping of male egotism. The atmosphere and writing style should appeal to fans of both.
Overall, this is an excellent historical fantasy and a chance to see Collins’ writing and imagination at their best. Those who weren’t so fond of her ‘The Binding’ may want to give her a second chance, and those that loved her debut should find plenty to enjoy here. Recommended.
Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 12th November 2020