The Last Checkmate by Gabriella Saab

The Last Checkmate by Gabriella Saab. William Morrow, 2021. 9780063141933

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or starred review) 3.5

Format: Paperback ARC

Genre: Historical fiction

What did you like about the book? The year is 1945 and Maria has returned to Auschwitz three months after her escape to play one final chess match with her nemesis…to the death. Flashback to 1941, and Maria Florkowska is a young girl living in Nazi-occupied Poland. She’s a prodigy who spends her days playing and practicing chess. She also helps the underground resistance movement – ferrying messages around Warsaw with one of her peers. When she is caught by the Gestapo, her entire family is imprisoned and later moved to Auschwitz. By a trick of fate, Maria is saved by a cruel camp guard, Fritzsch, who discovers she is a chess player. The rest of her family is murdered but Maria is kept in the men’s part of the camp and befriended by a Catholic priest who helps her deal with her grief. She is forced to play chess for the guards’ entertainment, but Maria has a plan to expose Fritzsch to his superiors as inefficient and explosive in nature and bring him to justice. 

Anything you did not like about the book? Parts of the book are tensely plotted and interesting, but overall this was a miss for me. There wasn’t as much chess as I expected and it’s obvious the author isn’t a chess expert. It felt like a marketing device and not as central to the story as the cover and title would lead you to believe (as in, it could have been dominoes very easily and it would be a quick change). Also, I would have liked a little more exposition (or flashbacks) about Maria’s life as a chess prodigy before the war. The biggest problem, however, is the inconsistent writing about the Holocaust. The author takes a lot of liberties with details (a young girl in the men’s camp?) and some things just don’t make sense (why is Maria obsessed with proving Fritzsch killed her family when any SS guard would have likely killed a woman, two young kids, and a crippled man?). This debut mostly fell flat for me for a number of reasons. 

To whom would you recommend this book? High school students who are obsessed with The Last Tattooist of Auschwitz or The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah or other books about WWII might like this book.

Who should buy this book?  High sch0ol libraries with large WWII fiction collections, as well as most public libraries. 

Where would you shelve it? Historical fiction

Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City: Laura Gardner, Dartmouth Middle School, Dartmouth, MA

Date of review: May 23, 2022

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