Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Chess Men (Book Review)

The Chess Men is the third novel in “the Lewis Trilogy” by Peter May (following The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man – links go to my reviews).

For me this one was a page-turner from beginning to end. It starts with a disappearing loch (lake). Who can resist getting intrigued? I read the book in three days.

Former police detective Fin Macleod’s has taken a job as head of security on a private estate. In this capacity he is reunited with another close friend from the past, a reunion which continues to stir up memories and cast more light on his teen years, as well as questions about what determines our choices in life.

I really liked the whole trilogy, and the third book did not disappoint me. I wonder how determined the author is about keeping it a trilogy… While this book did tie up some loose ends, it doesn’t seem to close the door completely for a continuation. I can see a risk, though, that if it were to continue for too long, it would probably eventually grow repetitious and too unrealistic. But in this book, I think Peter May still manages very successfully to keep up the magic contained in the very landscape, climate and history of the island, as well as in the background of his main character. I’m still enchanted by May’s use of language and also the general reflections triggered by confrontations between the present and the past. My spontaneous rating (Kindle always asks) is 5 stars.

*****

The Lewis chessmen in the title refer to medeival chess pieces found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis, which may constitute some of the few complete, surviving medieval chess sets. They were probably made in Norway and are carved from walrus ivory and wales’ teeth. One characteristic feature is their rather expressive faces.

Wfm_lewis_chessmen
(photo from Wikimedia Commons, replicas)

The British Museum in London has 67 of the original pieces, and the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has the remaining 11.

I learned the basics of chess back in childhood but I have to confess it’s been so many years since I last played that I had to check now in which order to set up the pieces. Which I did for this photo:

CIMG2970

The funny coincidence is, I actually have a chess set based on the Lewis chessmen. Made many years ago by my brother who bought a set of molds for casting them in plaster. I remembered I had it while he was here for Christmas and asked him about it and he said that yes, they are based on the Lewis chessmen.

CIMG2975

Pawn, Queen and King

CIMG2974

Rook (Berserker*), Knight, Bishop

*Quote from the book:

“The Berserkers were Norse warriors who whipped themselves up into a trance-like state, so that they could fight without fear or pain. The fiercest of the Viking warriors.”

*****

Some of my “highlights”, not containing spoilers but just examples of how the author uses language…

The distinctevely toasty scent of warm peat smoke filled the house. Stepping into it was like falling down the rabbit hole.

‘Because they knew they wouldn’t get a conviction in a court of law, Mr Macleod.’ He scratched his head. ‘But a court of the Free Church of Scotland… that’s another matter altogether.’

The storm had passed by the Monday, but it was still overcast, dull light suffused with a grey-green, as if we were all somehow trapped inside a Tupperware box.

‘Tell me.’ ‘Another time.’ ‘Who says there’ll be another time?’

Silence settled like down after a duck fight.

15 comments:

  1. well this explains where we got the word berserk from and why it means going crazy. i read a book yesterday that i gave 5 stars, which was my first to give 5 stars. mine have been 3 and 4 stars. but the stars don't mean much because a book i would give 5 you would give 3 and vice versa... i tried to read a couple of 5 star books and ended up deleting them about the 3rd chapter. so when i am downloading a book, i don't even look at the stars, i read the first 2 pages to see how they write, then end up deleting them. i am blah blah on so will hush now. i do love love my kindle

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    1. Sandra, this series is among the few I downloaded at full price. I was interested because they are set on Lewis where a friend lives + I' m interested in all things Celtic + friends recommended them + good reviews in newspapers, and on bestseller lists... Nothing random about choosing to read the first one, and then I was hooked!

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  2. I plan to read the first book, since reading your review here. I like that Chess set, especially the Knight. How neat you have a replica set. What a wonderful find that original set was!

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  3. I loved reading about the Lewis chessmen....very very interesting.
    You are quite lucky to have replicas of such an intriguing chess set Monica.
    Maybe I will read the books, you have piqued my interest.

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    1. Virginia, they're certainly more interesting than most stylized modern chessmen. I can see how they may have put an extra dimension into playing the game.

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  4. I really enjoyed this trilogy.

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    1. Adrian, I think it was your mentioning of them than first caught my interest. Thanks!

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  5. This set your brother made is very cool, I hope it is saved. the last sentence is rather flowery to be sure. I hope these animals were not hunted and killed just so we could play our games and brag about the pieces!

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    1. Ginny, I took my plaster-set out yesterday to take photos for this post. The originals (in museum) are from medeival times. I think they made good use of the whole animals back then - meat, fat and bones.

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  6. I've been rationing myself. Having read the first one and enjoyed it as much as any book I've read for years I am looking forward to the next two. The fact that it portrays my home Island is a wonderful bonus and makes the trilogy very special.

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    1. GB, I completely understand that feeling of wanting to savour the reading experience and not devour all of them in one go. That's why I decided to read a few other books between the last two. So just rejoice that you still have two great books waiting!

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  7. Hmmm, I may get it for my Kindle. However I find that I am so, so enjoying reading the Aubrey-Maturin series (Patrick O'Brian) that I may never read another book again.

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    1. Katherine, when one does get drawn into a series it can be a very magical experience. The mere length of that O'Brian series has a certain deterrent effect on me though ;) I tried listening to the first as audio book years ago but never go into it. Maybe some day I'll give it another go but just now I have too many other books waiting.

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  8. Have not read any of these yet, but want to get started on them soon...thanks for a great review. And loved the story of the chess pieces. xoxo

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