Checkmate by A.L. Olson – Review

Jamie Bernthal
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In a nutshell: A self-published fantasy offering clean, simple escapism.

Imagine you’re working the fast food service industry and feeling the picture of greasy mediocrity. Suddenly, a chess piece comes to life and gives you career advice. Ambrosia, the protagonist in this novel, freaks out a bit, but she deals with it better than I would. She answers back.

Checkmate was published in 2013 by A.L. Olson, a bright young queer who writes fiction in their spare time and runs an LGBTQ support group. The proceeds are going to a really great cause. Olson wrote the book to raise money for surgery which they need as a result of complications arising from hormone replacement. Luckily, the future is looking bright. They have promised that if they raises appropriate funds, all Checkmate’s royalties will be donated to Gendered Intelligence, a great initiative which promotes communities and gender diversity.

The plot is superb. With a conventional publisher, Checkmate could easily become a film, or even the first film in a franchise. It’s twistier than a roller-coaster in a tornado. But there’s an underlying elegance and structure so you know you’re in safe hands. I refuse to believe that the book was as easy to write as it is to read. And that’s a very good thing.

I really liked Ambrosia, a university student (‘college’; she’s American) who wants more out of life. Although I found it hard to empathise with her, it was easy (and fun) to sort the other characters out into good and bad. But there are other binaries. That oh-so-queer line between fantasy and reality is trod upon, skipped around, and flirted with outrageously.

We never really know what’s going on; how much is in Ambrosia’s head, how much is in the author’s head, and how much we know about the world around us. Hallucination episodes and enchanted figurines would lead most authors to muse on mental health. But instead, we find ourselves asking what’s real. It’s testament to Olson’s skill as a writer that I fumed at the jarring presentation of one character (someone in that position would never say that!) and it took at least three chapters for me to realise that they were a figment of the narrator’s imagination.

That said, the novel could do with a proof-read. Not just spelling and grammar (it’s for its) but some turns of phrase. For instance, a brief musing on ‘I know why the caged bird sings’, a phrase Maya Angelou coined to discuss racism and oppression growing up. ‘Does the caged bird even care? I mean, he gets birdie kibble’. Now it’s meant to be down-to-earth and funny. But it may be considered appropriative by people of colour and activists. As a novel, it’s a couple of drafts off smashing.

None of this distracts from the slick, pacey, two-fingers-to-straightness that characterise this adventure story. It’s full of computer geekery, wordplay, emotional wisdom, giant flipping talking chess pieces, dreams, and nightmares. I genuinely didn’t see the end coming, and am kind of miffed by it. But Checkmate is a queer story. While emotional, it’s not as sentimental as straight stories – still, as an adventure it knows how to have fun with you.

Something I really liked was the understated attraction that Ambrosia feels for a PhD student. I loved that the other person’s viewpoint wasn’t disclosed – much. And I was relieved that no one ever made a thing out of the fact that Ambrosia fancies women. No sex, no smut, no ethical dilemmas: the characters in this world have more important things to think about. Like careers, and robots, and saving the world.

You know, things that homophobes would do well to fill their pretty little heads with, instead of obsessing unhealthily over what goes where, or in whom.

Checkmate is a good read, and its author is one to watch. Give it a go. The plot is good; the escapism is fun. The whole thing feels very young and melodramatic, but also young and fresh. All in all, it’s clean, lively, and defiant.

Checkmate is available now.

About Jamie Bernthal

Jamie is a researcher, would-be-poet, and occasional gay from sunny Norfolk. A PhD student at Exeter University, he’s interested in queer theory and detective fiction. And gin. When he (finally) graduates, Jamie plans to publish sensational, provocative monographs. And to become Taylor Swift. @JCBernthal

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