Pawn's Gambit by Rob J Hayes, featuring a woman removing a mask from her face, an old woman, a bearded man carrying a club, a woman in Japanese style armour carrying a pole arm, an armoured general and an unremarkable horse.

Pawn’s Gambit by Rob J Hayes (SPFBO9 Feature)

The 10 finalists for the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off 2023 writing competition have been chosen. With 300 entries it’s always the case that excellent books miss out on the latter stages. This week I’m featuring one of those entries which I read and really enjoyed – SPFBO9 Semi-Finalist Pawn’s Gambit, written by previous finalist and competition winner Rob J Hayes.

“The first step towards winning is knowing which game you are playing.”

Pawn’s Gambit is a standalone novel, the second one set in Hayes’ Wuxia inspired Mortal Techniques world. This is a self-contained story in its own right but readers of the previous novel will see the connections to that book, Never Die. Hayes does an excellent job in recapping all the relevant information you need in a natural and completely organic way in Pawn’s Gambit, so you can jump right in here if you wish. That said, in reviewing this book I found myself constantly comparing it to Never Die, so as a consequence please note there are some spoilers for that novel in this review.

The premise of Pawn’s Gambit is that every one hundred years, the gods must choose a new ruler, known as the tianjun. Batu, the god of war, currently sits on Tianmen’s throne and during his reign he has brought war to Hosa, Ipia, Nash, and Cochtan (the kingdoms that comprise the setting for the Mortal Techniques universe). Natsuko, the goddess of lost things and missed opportunities, is determined the god of war will be unseated.

To challenge Batu’s rule, Natsuko and her brother Fuyuko, the god of orphans, hatch a plot. Natsuko is one of a number of gods who puts herself forward as a challenger to Batu’s position as tianjun. The rules of the contest are simple. Each of the gods offers up something precious to them, which is hidden by Batu. The gods must then find as many of these hidden treasures as they can, with the one finding the most artefacts declared the winner. The twist is the gods cannot undertake this divine scavenger hunt themselves – they must select a mortal champion to represent them.

Natsuko chooses Daiyu Lingsen, who was once known as The Art of War and was a character who appeared in Never Die. Previously, she was the strategist for the Steel Prince of Qing before his untimely death. This tale takes place five years later, after the ill-fated battle of Jieshu in the previous novel. Without her Steel Prince, we learn that in that intervening period Daiyu has become a drunk with a bounty on her head, trying to escape her past and adopting the new name of Yuu as she hides from her pursuers.

The set up for the story is intriguing but I have to admit I struggled a bit with this novel at the start. I was expecting a similar tale to Never Die and it took me a while to realise Hayes had very different intentions in Pawn’s Gambit. Never Die was a story about amazingly gifted heroes, whereas Pawn’s Gambit concerns ordinary people. Yuu has weaknesses and is difficult to like, especially at the beginning. Despite the god-driven plot this is a story about people with all their flaws, not perfect heroes. For example, Yuu remains an alcoholic throughout the novel. There’s no sudden quick fix when her life has renewed purpose.

That presents an interesting dynamic, as Natsuko needs Yuu to become The Art of War once more and the question posed is whether Yuu actually wants this. We learn The Art of War is an act, forced upon a young Yuu by her adoptive grandmother, who first held that title. Yuu’s path to greatness and fame was one shaped by cruelty and childhood trauma, making her a fascinating and complex character.

In addition to Yuu and Natsuko there are lots of other well written characters, including the hopeful warrior Li Bang, Zuan li Fang, the self-declared Prince of Thieves, and Yanmei, the daughter of the evil bandit Flaming Fist. Again, they all have their frailties, in keeping with the novel’s theme. Li Bang is overweight and has poor night vision, Fang is completely untrustworthy and Yanmei has the burden of a dark family legacy she is constantly trying to atone for. Even Lump, the horse Yuu acquires during her journey, is well past his prime.

I liked how the magic system was further explained. For example, Yuu has the ability to carve pieces, imbue them with her qi and enlarge and animate them to fight for her, rather like a golem. In Pawn’s Gambit her gift has weakened, compared with how she was able to deploy this during Never Die. There are lots of other nice touches, like the references to chess and other games, which serve as a metaphor for Yuu’s old life.

I enjoyed how Hayes used this opportunity to expand on the wider world and some of its history. If I have one complaint, it’s that this book really needs a map, since geography and strategy play such a key role in the war between Cochtan and Hosa (although I note this omission will be rectified in the forthcoming special edition of Never Die from The Broken Binding, which looks simply stunning). That aside, the setting feels real and immersive and I loved returning to this world.

A clever choice by Hayes was to establish early on that Yuu is no fighter. This means she has to acquire her artefacts through intelligence rather than brute force, which makes the story much more interesting. There are some chilling scenes, as Batu often employs horrific supernatural forces to protect the artefacts. Other champions are also able to kill their competitors, stealing any treasures they have found to increase their own haul. Yuu faces an implacable pursuer in the form of the assassin known as the Ticking Clock, and their encounters lead to some excellent action set pieces.

Despite the slower start I was soon completely hooked on this story and how the characters developed throughout the quest. The ending is simply superb, although going into the reasons why gets us far too deeply into spoilers territory. What I will say is the ending contains twists I never saw coming and, just like in Never Die, I found the conclusion packed a huge emotional punch. You know a novel is on another level when you feel bereft once you finish, feeling the absence of the world and the characters you’ve become so invested in.

Pawn’s Gambit delivers on every level, making this another outstanding novel and providing further proof, if it were needed, that Hayes is an amazingly talented writer.

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Author: Tim Hardie

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