The Fantasy Review’s review of The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, the original novel the Netflix series is based on.
“Beth, honey,” she said dreamily, “perhaps you need to work on yourself. Chess certainly isn’t all there is.”
“It’s what I know.”
Mrs. Wheatley gave a long sigh. “My experience has taught me that what you know isn’t always important.”
“What is important?”
“Living and growing,” Mrs. Wheatley said with finality. “Living your life.”
Chess is something I have loved all my life, spending hours playing against my dad as a child (always losing!), and joining chess clubs at primary and secondary school. I’ve never been an amazing player (still only winning against my dad once in my life), but it is a game close to my heart.
When The Queen’s Gambit TV adaptation came out on Netflix I was ecstatic! I had never heard of the book and binged the full series upon release. Anya Taylor-Joy’s fantastic performance as the chess genius Beth Harmon, catapulted this niche story into the zeitgeist and it seemed like everyone had watched it, even those who cared very little about chess.
There are a few highlights in this book, the first being its exploration of addiction and mental health issues. With The Queen’s Gambit being told completely from Beth Harmon’s point of view (through third-person-limited), you get to fully grasp the intricacies and nuances of these themes.
“What she really wanted was a drink, but that was out of the question. A bottle of red wine, with a little cheese. Then a few pills and off to bed. But she couldn’t. She had to be clear in the morning, had to be ready for the game against Benny Watts at one o’clock. Maybe she could take one pill and go to bed. Or two. She would take two.”
Addiction is insidious in nature, creeping up on you slowly, before taking over your life. Beth Harmon’s only distraction from tranquillisers, and later alcohol, is chess. She has nothing else; no one else.
Harmon’s relationships with other people are often shallow. Some have a large impact on her, positive impacts, but she gives nothing in return; the relationships are one-sided and quickly shoved to one side once she has gotten everything she needs from them. Despite this, she is a likeable character. These character traits are a product of her upbringing, with none of her guardians ever treating her with love, even the family who adopt her from the orphanage.
The next highlight is how The Queen’s Gambit tackles the issue of describing chess to the reader. Not everyone who reads it will know a huge amount about the game, but I believe anyone can enjoy the book because even without an understanding of the game you will still be on the edge of your seat, or at least understand who is winning/losing.
“The game built to a balanced fugue in the center. It was like time-lapse photography on TV where a pale-green stalk humps itself from dirt, heightens, swells and explodes into a peony or a rose.”
When you look at chess games played by professionals, the way the pieces move on the board, the sudden tactics, and deeply thought-out strategies are a wonder to behold. Walter Tevis depicts the games in The Queen’s Gambit in a way that often focuses on the beauty of the moves rather than the moves themselves. This writing style will pull you through the book with such a force you will struggle to put it down.
Much of the plot is convenient. Harmon plays the most difficult games in a tournament last, for the sake of building the narrative tension. I did not mind this, as it can be easily looked over in favour of a strong narrative and interesting characters.
The final negative is that The Queen’s Gambit ends quite suddenly. I did enjoy the final chapter, and it was a great payoff from the slow build-up in previous chapters, but I felt that it lacked the emotional payoff I was looking for.
Beth Harmon does grow as a person, and she is changed by the personal and professional challenges she goes through, but it seems her professional challenges are the issues “solved” in the end, leaving the reader wondering how her personal life might improve.
“Her mind was luminous, and her soul sang to her in the sweet moves of chess.”
Despite a sudden ending and wanting to see more character payoff for Beth Harmon, The Queen’s Gambit is a fantastic novel. Its depictions of addiction, critiques of sexism and racism, and glorious descriptions of chess, made it a joy to read.
If you have seen the Netflix adaptation, I implore you to read the book as you get so much more out of it, despite the show being a faithful adaptation of the source material.
Quotes are referenced from: Tevis, Walter. The Queen’s Gambit: Now a Major Netflix Drama (W&N Essentials) Orion. Kindle Edition.