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The Mastership Game: A Review

It’s the early days of a new century – and the world is slipping towards global chaos.  However, all is not lost, on a remote Scottish island lies the only institution that stands above the sea of corruption into which most governments, councils and think tanks have fallen.  The College, established on a Scottish island in the Middle Ages, is the most powerful and secretive organisation in the world.  Subject to the control only of its Master, the College works tirelessly for world peace, achieving successes like the unification of Korea and averting a new cold war between America and Russia.

However, all is not well with the College.  Its leader, the Master, is giving up his power and the question on the lips of those in the know is simple: who will be the next Master?  The answer is not the person who wins the most votes, but the person who wins the ultimate prize in the Mastership Game.  Five Fellows are selected randomly to compete, with the requirement to fulfil certain tasks as well as understanding the moral and philosophical nature of the Game. But there's a catch. The players must take part in a contest without knowing the rules - and there can only be one winner.  Those who lose can never return to the halls of power they once walked. 

The players don’t understand the rules of the game, nor do they understand the significance of the only clue, an old Chinese puzzle box, whose maker died hundreds of years ago. The box is far beyond their reach and its secret has never been solved. Yet it contains both the path to the Mastership... and its ultimate answer……

The Mastership Game is a brilliant book.  The five characters are forced to undertake a task that seems both simple and demeaning, although, to be fair, it is a very difficult task.  However, the players soon learn that the game can include murder and illegal acts.  And are others playing as well - by different rules?

I found the ending to be surprising.  In many books, we know that the good guys will win, but all of the players appear to be good guys at first.  Ivan is a spymaster, who believes that the College needs a cold hand at the helm.  Rex is ambitious and competitive, Tanya is a computer expert who wants a new challenge, Sebastian is a ruthless hedonist (and Tanya’s lover) who only wants to succeed (qouth the Master “to do something against your true nature is to fail”) and Andrew, who is a UN peacekeeping consultant.  It is not clear who is the best for the most important job in the world …. And one of them loses his life to the competition.  One of the books best parts is that its not clear who the murderer is until the last few pages – once I had completed the book, I read through it again and still could not tell who killed the victim. 

We get a very intriguing look into the way power can be used.  Without giving up too many surprises, we see the Master assisting the US president recover stolen nuclear secrets and defeat what was effectively a coup attempt.  Further on, we see the players fulfilling the requirements by stealing, treachery and assisting one of the most evil old men be reunited with his brother.  We can’t help, through, particularly after the discourse on the Master’s success, (“The current Master understood the contest from the beginning and refused to take part”) feeling that all of the candidates failed.  Instead of the glittering prize that they believed would be theirs, the Mastership would be a hard, thankless task – and their predecessor had tried to refuse the job entirely. 

Towards the end, we learn the real purpose of the game; to discover what the players will do to gain power.  By contrasting Machiavelli with something deeper in the form of Chinese Taoism, he reveals the ultimate banality of the former and encourages us to look for deeper meaning in our lives. That said a couple of the scenes are very powerfully written and in his descriptions he puts in a fair amount of interesting detail. He also displays a good deal of humour, though it might not be to everyone's taste! 

We can’t help but feel, however, that the book is Alternate History.  Like Turtledove, he does not worry about precise details.  Had a College existed with the reach and influence that the fictional one holds, I feel that many of the problems of our century would not have happened.  As both a thriller and a discourse on the nature of power, Scott McBain presents a superb book.  Compelling and fascinating, the Mastership Game is a race involving a tempestuous clash of character and wills as the players, and the reader, are forced to consider the true nature of power and just what they will do to attain it.

I was disappointed, however, that McBain only showed us three possible methods of completing the challenge.  The solutions involve outright criminal activity, a cold, calculating, solution that would bring miserly and destruction of an already very unhappy part of the world and a gentle solution that attempts to reunite two brothers.  However, the final solution involves trying to reunite a nastier version of Al Capone/ Charles Miltervan with his brother, who has been locked up for 50 years by a nation that wants the evil brother, but can’t get him.  The team-up of two of the candidates, which would probably mean that one of them could not complete the challenge, was unexpected and – in my view – unrealistic.  None of the candidates struck me as being particularly stupid, so the decision to team-up, which was a stupid one, remains unexplained. 

Misdirection is another feature of the book.  We see throughout the book the Master, directing events like Blofield (James Bond) or a shadowy Moriarty.  We consider, like the candidates, that the master may well be playing the game as well, waiting until the candidates are weakened before striking.  We learn very quickly that the master may play – and that he can’t leave the job unless he’s somehow unsuited.  Other than that, he’s master for life, he can’t retire.  This also adds a degree of even greater mystery for the readers, if he can’t give up the power anyway, why would he arrange the Game?

One influence that appears to be present is that of Doctor Who.  In the episode ‘The Five Doctors’, (http://www.drwhoguide.com/who_6k.htm), the first doctor discourses, at the end of the episode, “he knew very well that [immortality] was a curse, not a blessing.” The Time Lord’s founder having created a similar challenge to weed out from their ranks anyone who truly wanted immortality.  Shades of the Doctor’s speech can be heard in the speech of the Senior Arbitrator towards the end, although the Arbitrator dwells on power and the meaning of the mastership.  

That said, I had the feeling that the game had succeeded and the best person won.  Both the Master and the successful candidate showed great compassion and a gentle understanding of events.  The solution, and its ultimate outcome, was very elegant and tender, although the actions of the person whom it was supposed to help ended what could have been the first coup of his career. 

The book is a wonderful read and I highly recommend it to you all.

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