“Despite taking place in one of the darkest times and places in our collective history, I want The Last Checkmate to be a story that shows how courage, resilience and love can emerge and triumph over such evil.” ~ Gabriella Saab
Maria Florkowska is many things: daughter, sister, avid chess player, and a member of the Polish underground resistance in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Poland. Captured by the Gestapo, she is imprisoned in Auschwitz, but while her family is sent to their deaths, she is spared because to play chess to entertain the camp deputy and his guards.
Befriended by a Catholic priest, Maria attempts to overcome her grief, vows to avenge the murder of her family, and plays for her life. For four grueling years, her strategy is simple: Live. Fight. Survive. As the war nears its end, she challenges her former nemesis to one final game.
I enjoyed this book very much: the primary character had moxie and did what was necessary to survive in Auschwitz and avenge the murders of her family. One must expect atrocities when reading a book set in a death camp, and this had plenty, but the plot was so good, it didn’t bother me as much as I’d feared. I know nothing about chess, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t take any notes or highlight any passages in this book—I was too busy enjoying it. Although the protagonist is fictional, several others are based on real individuals, including Karl Fritzsch, the Nazi officer who served as the deputy commandant of Auschwitz, and Father Maksymilian Kolbe, a priest and political prisoner. Pope John Paul II canonized Kolbe in 1981.
The Last Checkmate would have earned 5 stars, but the debut author made some rookie writing mistakes that bothered my editor brain. Her first novel was picked up by William Morrow, though, so I expect good things in her next novel (which is already in the works). If you like WWII fiction with strong female leads, check this out. 4.5 stars.
Published Date: October 2021
Genre: Historical fiction
Read-alikes: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, Sisters of Night and Fog by Erika Robuck, The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy, Irena’s War by James D. Shipman