Guest Blog by Brian Trent
In a steam-driven Victorian England, war is not fought with massed armies, but with duels between specialized combatants for the fate of a nation. This is the idea behind “Checkmate”, my contribution to Rhonda Parrish’s Clockwork, Curses and Coal.
The game of chess has a history that seems a fairy tale in itself. Evidence suggests it emerged from the royal courts of India around 1,400 years ago and traveled along the Silk Road into Persia. As Islamic conquest absorbed the remnants of the Sassanid Empire, the popularity of chess exploded, and when worlds collided during the Crusades it continued its journey across battle-lines into Europe, where its pieces adopted the now-familiar shapes of rook and knight and pawn. It became the strategy game of the west, and has enjoyed an unending popularity as other board games of the past fell into obscurity.
My father taught me chess when I was very young—I still recall the wonder evoked by handcrafted wooden chess pieces which had passed to him from his father. They suggested tales of wonder, and when I wasn’t learning the game’s rules I was creating adventures with the pieces… noble knights escorting queen and king into valleys of plastic dinosaurs to face an opposing army. (Alas, I never did formalize the rules of Dinosaur Chess.) And chess was further stoked in my imagination by the famous scenes in Through the Looking Glass, when Alice sees the little pieces come alive, and later interacts with such iconic personas as the Red Queen.
Something about the concept of this "alternate war" seemed especially fitting for steampunk: the conceit of “civilized warfare for a civilized age,” as one of the characters observes. The main character is Edward Oakshott, a scandalous Byronic hero who finds himself fighting for London… a contest which will pit him against the terrifying, barely-human combatant known as the Rook. Of course, there’s a good deal else going on, but I won’t spoil anything for readers. Suffice to say that there are ample clockwork gadgets, curses of nightmarish technology, and coal-driven abominations to be found within. And chess, of course!
Brian Trent writes science fiction and fantasy, horror and fable. His contribution here, “Checkmate”, is an original tale that draws folkloric inspiration from the chess game in Through the Looking Glass, as well as from the game of chess itself. Upon those checkered squares unfolds a unique story each time, with knights and queens, moving castles and the promise of success (or death) in every passing moment. Trent, an avid chess player himself, applies the strategic nature of the game and the specialized nature of its six “player classes” to a steampunk world that might have been. Trent’s recent publications can be found in Fantasy & Science Fiction (March/April 2020, July/August 2020, and September/October 2020), Baen Books’ Weird World War III anthology (October 2020), and more. His novel Ten Thousand Thunders was released last year from Flame Tree Press. You can catch up with Trent on his blog at www.briantrent.com.
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