“These are the times that scare her the most, the beginnings and endings: this is when the world is most unpredictable.”– The Betrayals
The Betrayals is a book that sneaks up on you. The first couple of chapters, you will probably be hopelessly confused as to what is going on, who these characters are, and when the events that are being narrated are taking place. In fact, after having read the entire book, I still can’t tell you exactly where and when this is set, although I do have my suspicions. In a way, it’s kind of like a short story: There is a lot hidden beneath that tip of the iceberg, numerous questions that will forever go unanswered. All you plot-driven readers who detest open endings and need explanations for everything – this book is not for you. You’d probably end up hating it with a passion, if you even managed to get through it without boring yourself into DNFing it 😅
And then there are readers like me. Readers who will be slowly ensnared by everything this book has to offer. The mystery. The academics. The darkness. The character relationships. In all honesty, it’s probably been a few years since I’ve loved a book as much as I loved this one. I entered into this university semester as a seriously sleep-deprived wreck because I just could not stop listening to the audiobook until I knew how it ended, even though it was already well past one a.m. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about The Betrayals since, and I know I will be picking up a physical copy eventually, so I can reread it over and over again. If you ask me, this book did just about everything right!
SOME GENERAL INFO:
Title: The Betrayals
Author: Bridget Collins
Genre: Ummm – I don’t know? 😅 If I had to describe it, I’d probably call it a very character-driven dark academia/alternate history novel… But that doesn’t really do this book justice! Let’s just say it has a bit of everything, and is literary fiction at its finest 😉
Publication Date: November 12, 2020
Date Read: April 1 – April 11, 2021
Rating: 5/5 Stars – I’d give it more if I could 🥰
Format I Read It In: Audiobook [Which I would highly recommend! I loved the narrators! And plus, it’s freely available if you have Scribd 😉 ]
The Betrayals is told from four points of view. There’s Claire Dryden, first ever female Magister Ludi to hold office in the prestigious mountain academy of Montverre. Present-day Léo Martin, a disgraced politician exiled to the school he left behind ten years ago. Young Léo Martin, desperate to excel at Montverre and fit in. And finally, a mysterious character known only as The Rat. All these perspectives eventually weave together in beautiful prose to tell a story – a story of academic rivalry, friendship, love, and betrayal amidst the backdrop of a country whose politics are steadily turning darker…
And I think that’s just about everything I can say about this book without spoiling it. This is the type of story that I think it’s best to go into blind, or at least knowing as little as possible. Figuring out what is going on is part of what makes The Betrayals so addicting in the first place! There’s just nothing quite as satisfying as slowly unravelling a mystery…
But for those of you who have already read it – let’s get into details!
WARNING – MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK YET AND DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED!!!
Now that it’s just us, I’d better warn you: This section is probably going to be a mess 😂 I just have so many thoughts that I’ll never be able to formulate them eloquently! After all, this book combined pretty much everything I love into one beautifully heartbreaking novel. A school setting. Math, music, and literature. An enemies-to-lovers romance. A political background that really got me thinking. Lots and lots of intrigue…
And let’s not forget that this had my favorite trope of all time!! If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you’ll know that “girl disguises herself as a boy to achieve something society has denied to her” just gets to me every single time. Okay, well, maybe not in Arabella of Mars, but it wasn’t really the trope’s fault in that one… 🙄 The Betrayals, though, had what is probably one of my favorite executions yet, apart from Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet.
And I’m actually rather proud of myself for suspecting that Carfax and Claire were one and the same person pretty much from the get-go! There was just way too much familiarity and tension from Claire towards Léo to be explained away by her simply having heard of him.
Or so I thought at first, anyway. The more we learnt about Aimé and Claire’s past, the more unsure I became. Was I just seeing things? Did I just not want Carfax, who was by far my favorite character in the book, to be dead? I hit my all-time low when Claire talked about Aimé coming home from Montverre in more dejected spirits than she had anticipated or them celebrating his and Léo’s seventy in absolute glee. Why would Claire be talking about herself in the third person?
For a short moment there, I was convinced Carfax was truly and actually dead. But then the gears in my brain started turning again. Why would Claire immediately recognize Léo was trying to recreate the Danse Macabre? How would she know which questions to set Léo that he would find interesting? Why on Earth would she invite him into her office in the middle of the night to have some brandy, if she wasn’t overwhelmed by old feelings? Why did she know exactly what Léo would have done if she hadn’t pushed him away and broken their kiss? Why would Carfax freak out so badly about wine soaking through his clothes, unless it was because he was terrified someone could tell he had bound “his” breasts beneath them? What was all this agonized talk about having to lie to Léo? Why did Carfax push him away after Léo tried to undress him? My Dryden=Carfax suspicions were back stronger than ever, and I was so happy when it was revealed I was right!!! I hadn’t been crazy after all! Carfax wasn’t dead!!
And my shipper heart was just so, so satisfied 😍 It’s been a while since I shipped anyone as much as I did Léo and Carfax. I loved the way their relationship developed, how Léo went from envious hatred to defending “him” from Felix and all his other “friends”. I loved how they could talk about academics for hours and hours. How they understood one another despite their rivalry. The honest conversations they had on the astronomy tower and above the roof of the Great Hall. The underlying tension that was there the whole time. I mean, I was basically in seventh heaven when Léo walked in on Carfax playing the cello 🥰🎼
Which is why it just didn’t sit right with me that Léo would want to start something with Carfax’s sister and see her as some kind of replacement for her brother. I could never, ever get behind Léo and Claire as a couple – unless, of course, Claire was Carfax all along. Unless part of Léo somehow recognized who she was, even though he didn’t consciously know it at the time. Unless he was so entranced with Claire because she was Carfax, and everything Léo had loved about him, he could also see in her.
And gosh, that scene in the library, after Léo had finally realized who Claire was? My heart was about to burst! No matter how flawed they are, I love the two of them so much, and it was a relief to finally have them open up to each other!
Also, can we just talk about all the commentary on a women’s role in academia? So many of the snide remarks Claire experienced and the way she constantly had to prove she was better than her male peers, just so that she would be taken seriously at all, throws a lot of light on our own history. And maybe not even just history. As a girl studying a STEM subject, it’s kind of hard not to notice that there’s only a single female professor in our whole department, and that a noticeable majority of my fellow math students are guys… Of course, that’s still way better than actively being discouraged from studying at all, just because of your sex, but it just goes to show that it takes time for remnants of a system that barred women from university to fade altogether…. [For context, the first German university to allow women to study there was Heidelberg in 1895.]
So yeah, I really liked getting to see some of the struggles Claire went through, and what a self-righteous mansplainer Léo became when he was confronted with them 😁 I really like that Bridget Collins didn’t decide to make Léo a modern-thinking ally, but showed that he, just like everyone else, was a product of the society he lived in. Although he loved Claire and did eventually come around to seeing her point of view at least a little bit, I think it was probably impossible for him to truly change how he viewed women deep down. Claire was the exception, brilliant because she was Claire, but, at least at first, still inferior because she was a woman. Why should he have questioned that she would want to kiss him? How could she truly understand Montverre, as a woman who had never been there herself? It took him to realize that she was Carfax, one of the smartest men he’d ever known, to truly see her as an equal, and to give her the option of making choices that affected both of them.
Ultimately, I would have been disappointed if Claire hadn’t walked out on Léo. There was just too much betrayal between them, he had destroyed too much of her life without even pausing to consider that he was doing it. He kept her from seeing her brother, when that might have saved his life. [Also, side note: I love how supportive Aimé was of his sister! Although their nerdy childhood was filled with arguments and rivalry, I never doubted for a second that the two of them loved each other, and seeing Aimé celebrate his sister’s victories with her was the cutest thing ever. Even though I was thoroughly relieved that “Carfax” wasn’t dead, I was heart-broken that Aimé was. Although we only saw him briefly, I loved him, and I also loved how the strain his illness (bipolar disorder, maybe?) put on their relationship was represented. Claire’s guilt at wanting to get away from her brother and being back at Montverre, when she loved him and simultaneously wanted to be with him felt so real, and I think I shed a few tears when she finally admitted to blaming herself for her brother’s death.] But let’s get back to Léo, and all the reasons Claire had to hate him: He gave The Party a reason to take Claire’s position of Magister Ludi away from her. He had been betraying things she said to him in confidence to Emile all along. And, maybe worst of all, he didn’t even understand why what he had done was wrong, since he hadn’t done any of it with the intention of hurting Claire.
But I absolutely love the scene in which they parted! Because it was absolutely obvious that they still loved each other, and because Léo finally realized that, because he loved Claire, he had to respect her decisions and not force his will on her.
And I really think there’s a future out there for them! That last sentence from Léo’s point of view gave me hope, and I really think there’s a future out there for them. A future where they can flee the country, study together, and maybe establish a network that will help Christians flee from afar. In my head, that’s where I’d like to picture that they ended up.
Speaking of the role of women in society, though, I also really want to talk about The Rat! Or more specifically, her mother and Emile. At first, when there were hints that Emile knew someone in the servants’ quarters, I was inclined to like him. After all, he was also the only one who still reached out to Léo after he had been exiled. Surely, he couldn’t be too bad? But then, when he met past-Léo in the servants’ wing that one night and when he started planting doubts in Léo’s minds about his relationship with Carfax, I started seriously disliking him. The more we saw of him, it became apparent what a manipulative and egotistical jerk he was, and it didn’t come as a surprise to me at all that The Rat’s mother had killed herself because of him. [Although I actually thought for a very long time that The Rat was probably Emile’s daughter and that her mother killed herself once Emile found out The Rat existed – so my sleuthing skills did get a few things wrong 🧐😜]
Emile clearly saw The Rat’s mother as an object without worth, someone who was simply there for his pleasure. And in doing so, without feeling any remorse about it, he destroyed her life and sentenced The Rat to a life of fear and solitude. [Also, am I the only one who actually thought that The Rat was an actual rat for at least half of the first chapter? 🙈 I was so confused and feel a tiny bit stupid in retrospect 🤣] I honestly didn’t feel bad in the least when The Rat shoved him off that tower. Good riddance, if you ask me! And I love how The Rat finally found someone in Simon whom she felt she could open up to, and who she trusted enough that she felt she needed to protect him. My heartstrings tore a tiny bit when I realized she had gone from the timid mistrustful wraith, who panickily vomited back up the chocolate he had given her, to someone willing to confront her past and murder the man she hated in order to protect her friend. And when she spoke those first words to Simon! 😍
Speaking of Simon, though – the political backdrop this story was written against was one of my favorite things about it. Normally, I like having my plotlines resolved by the end of the book, but, in this case, I think it was perfect that all the political stuff continually lurked in the background and wasn’t neatly tied up in a parcel as an “all is well” ending. I think that would have done the gravity of the themes explored here an injustice. What was truly haunting was knowing that there was something going on that was wrong, seeing all the hints at a country closing itself off – purity laws, closure of borders, registers, more and more open persecution of Christians -, and the characters doing nothing at all to stop it, either because they didn’t think it was important, because they agreed with the public sentiments, because they thought they didn’t have any power to stop it, or because they were scared of getting caught themselves, especially if the laws didn’t concern anyone they personally knew. Yes, Léo’s disagreement with a bill was what initially made him lose his position, but did he protest, and tell others what was coming? Did he really pay much attention to Christians being deported, until it concerned his former mistress? Why was him warning Simon and leaving morsels of food and money already something that had to be commended?
The Betrayals, I think, did a marvelous job portraying a country that was sliding into fascism while its people looked the other way, bathing in the glory of their national identity and accomplishments – symbolized here by the grand jeu.
I got chills reading it. I felt like I was back in ninth grade, within the grounds of a former concentration camp, and reading those awful words, Arbeit macht frei, on the wrought iron gates. Knowing fully well I was standing on soil drenched in the blood of people that some of my ancestors had helped murder in pursuit of “national glory”. I remembered all the texts we had read in history class, journal entries of people whose sentiments as the Nazis took over sounded eerily like Léo’s, or worse, Emile’s. And the general sense of hopelessness felt by those that didn’t agree, because once things escalated, how could you risk speaking out? That sense of looming dread, of powerlessness to stop it, was something that came across hauntingly well in The Betrayals. And I love how it got me thinking.
And overall, I think that’s also why it doesn’t bother me that I don’t know exactly where Montverre is, and when this story takes place. True, I have my suspicions. If I had to place my bets, I’d say the setting was somewhere near Switzerland in the late 1920s / early 1930s. Maybe the whole point was that this country doesn’t exist at all, that it presented an alternate version of history that was supposed to get you thinking. Because this country could really be anywhere. Nationalistic sentiments, hate, and fear are nothing out of the ordinary. We’re seeing them crop up again today, and unless humans finally figure things out and evolve, they’re probably always going to be around. And this book is a reminder. Because totalitarian regimes didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Their people weren’t born inherently evil and filled with hatred. And if we aren’t aware of that, we might slide back into situations dangerously close to the one portrayed here before we even realize it.
So to summarize my thoughts before this review gets even more out of hand: Yes, I loved this book. I loved the characters. I loved the world. I loved how it got me thinking.
And I definitely plan on reading Hermann Hesse’s Glasperlenspiel (English title: The Glass Bead Game) now that I know Bridget Collins heavily based the grand jeu on that! Because, let’s be honest, the grand jeu just sounds really, really cool, like something I’d absolutely love. In my head, I see it as a mixture of academic paper, math, music, performance, and dance, and actually have a very clear idea of what it is, even though it was never exactly said. And all the terms that go along with it are just so clever! For example, I doubt it’s a coincidence that ludus is the Latin word for both ‘game’ and ‘school’ – making Claire master of both the grand jeu and Montverre itself. So if Hesse was the one who originally came up with this, I need to read the original! I mean, it’s not like I haven’t been saying on this blog that I’ve wanted to read something by Hesse for ages. Him having been one of my mom’s absolute favorites when she was a teenager and all… 😅
So yeah – I’ll leave it at that for now! If you’ve read this book, do share your thoughts with me down in the comments! Even if you hated it, I would love to know! Where do you disagree with me? Where do you agree?
(And Line, just so you know – I’m definitely going to make it my mission to read more of your favorites from now on. 😉)