★★★★ | Checkmate by A. L. Olson

Bored university student/cheesy diner waitress Ambrosia’s mundane and ordinary life takes a turn for the bizarre when her boss starts buying chess sets for customers to play, and two of the chess pieces appear to come to life and begin offering Ambrosia unsolicited life coaching.

When she begins taking the advice of the chess pieces, her life begins to get on the right track until she is thrust into a suddenly bizarre world of hallucinations, seemingly crazy psychologists, and A.I. robots, Ambrosia finds herself the unlikely heroine, almost alone in her quest to save the world.

This first novel by Olson is quirky yet relatable. Ambrosia is an interesting character, who you want to love, even while she complains a lot about the ‘current generation’ (hipsters with iPhones etc.). The plot moves quickly through familiar territory, interwoven with original ideas. The fact that a lot of the plot twists, and there are many, are inspired by, or borrowed from other sci-fi stories: there’s certainly elements of The Matrix, Philip K. Dick, and many zombie movies; makes the book instantly familiar, without being predictable and boring. Just when you have the idea that you know where you’re going, Olson throws in another twist and the story rockets off in a different direction. It is a great first novel, thought I think it could benefit from a few notes before being an excellent novel, it is a fun read, and well worth the time to get invested in the characters.

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Written to help raise funds to cover the cost of much needed surgery, resulting from hormone treatments, Olson steers clear of and heavy-handed ‘Queering’ of the characters, and the potential same-sex attraction in the story is included naturally and doesn’t feel shoe-horned in. It also doesn’t deal with any societal issues faced by the characters because of their sexuality, real or perceived, and it thus avoids coming off as a ‘preachy’ story. Olson stays true to the story line, and the issues being dealt with there, and thankfully refrains from getting bogged down in queer social issues or politics. This is a refreshing story where the protagonist happens to have a same-sex attraction that is not central to the story, rather than being the only plot point.