Friday, February 24, 2017


Perhaps twenty years ago, I picked up a copy of Isaac Asimov's Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine because it had a cover story named "Queenmagic, Pawnmagic" by Ian Watson. The story was fairly good, about a boy named Pedino who comes of age in the medieval setting of Bellogard, a city of light locked in war with an antithetical city of dark named Chorny. Ordinary citizens live their lives ignorant of the conflict which is fought magically between the lords and squires of the realm. During a practical joke gone horribly wrong, Pedino is found to have a soul and overnight goes from the son of a tradesman to Pawn/Squire.

Recently, I was delighted to find out that the story from that magazine was part of a larger book, "Queenmagic, Kingmagic". However, my enthusiasm was tempered when I read the story to the end. I think Act I and Act II are strong with insight into the human experience transplanted to a chess-themed one. I suppose the main constant throughout is that the main character has a preoccupation with a series of women in his life. But I'm disappointed as usual with Act III, which almost discards the groundwork of the previous two-thirds. The story goes through palace intrigue and star-crossed romance, but then there is a left turn into action-packed multiverse theory before returning home to a meandering wrap-up. The story goes through a succession of discarded quests - victory, survival, home, family, love - none of which seem resolved satisfactorily.

Perhaps Mr. Watson didn't want to write for a chessically educated audience, since there seemed to be strange liberties such as a pawn being lost during castling. There were perhaps three main battles but treatment of the strategy and tactics were disappointingly superficial. One problem the author seemed to have is that in his description of Pedino's life, the pawn had agency and soul, but when the larger kingdom came into focus, there was an element of Destiny that stole the agency from the Pieces acting as players within this life-sized game.

My twenty-something self was struck back then by this passage relevant to our current discussion of dead and wounded pieces:

Queen Alyitsa was dead – murdered by Prince Feryava of Chorny. Bishop Slon was dead, killed by Bishop Zorn. Squire Iris was dead, protecting Bishop Veck.

The survivors were: the king, Bishop Veck, Sir Brant, Prince Ruk, and five of us squires. Henchy was injured; his wrist had been broken. It would stay that way for the rest of his life. Magical injuries did not heal unless you killed the person who inflicted them.

Despite its shortcomings, it was fun to see perspective shift to life among the pieces. It reminded me of this poem which I posted back during the death of Bobby Fischer:

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
-- Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

1 comment:

ChessAdmin said...

I remember that story (or at least that cover of F&SF) quite well, it lay around the den/computer room of my house for a long time; my family had a subscription. I had a similar reaction to the initial story, actually, thinking that the outcome was rather vague and somewhat inconsistent with the chess paradigm, but overall it worked reasonably well and was thought-provoking. Had no idea there were two follow-on stories and a book collection of them.