The Double Phoenix

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Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris

Posted by spragujs on March 2, 2008

Gentlemen and Players

Finished Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris yesterday. I loved Chocolat so I thought I’d give this one a try after reading the cover blurb. Interestingly, this was (for me disturbingly) similar to the first two of Mervyn Peake’s The Gormenghast Novels (which were even mentioned in the book). I say disturbingly, because I really disliked Gormenghast. Reading that story took up many hours of time that I wish I could now get back. The last two sentences of those books could have summed up what the author was trying to say, as far as I’m concerned.

As for Gentlemen, in spite of its similarity to Gormenghast, I liked it! It took me a bit to get past the similarities, but eventually I managed. Maybe it’s this book’s differences that made its similarities tolerable. I guess I’ll talk about the similarities more than I’d intended, ’cause the two stories are somewhat intertwined in my brain at this point. And apparently, for all that I disliked it, I sure remember a lot more of Gormenghast than I do of a lot of stuff I read, so…

In any case, this story in general is about a private English school named St. Oswalds. St. Oswalds is this book’s Gormenghast. There is a character who started out as the Porter’s kid, who becomes obsessed with the place and, after not ever being able to fit in at St. Oswalds, wants to bring it down. This character is similar to Gormenghast’s Steerpike who starts as a kitchen boy and eventually decides he wants to bring down Gormenghast, or at least its ruling family. In both cases, the setting is infiltrated by the lowly kid and its staff are eventually torn to pieces, in particular as far as loyalty is concerned.

Here’s where a couple of differences become apparent. First, I don’t know why (or how!) Gormenghast exists. I dunno what its purpose is. It houses the duke and his family, but with the exception of keeping some parts of the castle running, I have no idea how the duke keeps the land he supposedly rules from falling to bits. St. Oswalds on the other hand is a school. It’s purpose is much more well spelled out for me and I appreciate that. Steerpike also (besides having been a boy too smart to be kitchen boy) has virtually no background. The Porter’s kid, on the other hand is given background throughout Gentlemen & Players. Hey, now we understand why the antagonist is doing what they’re doing! Fancy that! I’d get it if Steerpike had wanted to bring down the cook, but beyond that… (Except maybe he had the same feelings that I do about Gormenghast’s existence, so perhaps I should cut him some slack, eh?) 😉

Anyway, another of the irritating things about Gormenghast was the fact that I couldn’t find a single character that I actually cared about. Some occasionally came close, but never actually made it. On the other hand, the antagonist, in spite of being a pretty bad guy, was pretty likable on many occasions. Gentlemen doesn’t suffer from this fate; the main protagonist and several of the St. Oswalds staff members are likable, but the antagonist is similar in likability to Steerpike for me, maybe more likable actually. Still pretty evil though.

A last couple of notes… There was a very well hidden (at least to me) twist at the end. Actually, it was a couple for me. I think it’s conceivable for some people to not have been fooled twice as I was, but there you have it! Also, it was a happy ending story, and I do like those, so another plus for that from me. It was a tad disappointing for the antagonist to have gone to so much trouble to just have the school keep on truckin’ in the long run, but at the same time, there was some closure as well.

Next for reading: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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