Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Ghost and the Machine by Benny Lawrence

Book:  The Ghost and the Machine
Author:  Benny Lawrence
Publisher:  Bedazzled Ink Publishing

I suck at chess.

Not the kind of suck that has me struggling to recognize myriad variations in the Italian Game, or even the kind that has me botching up the classic Ruy Lopez opening salvo of 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5.

It’s not even the kind of suck that has me referring to “birdbaths,” “horsies,” or “those little medieval dudes.”


My suck is extra special. 

It’s the kind of suck that has me digesting things like Vukovic’s Art of the Attack in Chess, Heisman’s Elements of Positional Evaluation, and Shirov’s Fire on the Board and still losing in three moves to a drunken goat in plaid lederhosen chain-smoking Pall Malls.

And it’s not a recent suck, this one dates back to my fifth birthday when my highly skilled and very patient father finally patted me on the shoulder, and kindly suggested a lively game of Animal Rummy instead.  I tried to hold out, but he used my affinity for Hoppy Hippo to talk me off the edge of my kitchen chair and into a better mood.

It worked then and it works now. 

Really—ask my wife and our gay husbands every time Game Night rolls around.

But seriously, chess is a game that combines the basic fundamentals of strategy, vision, calculation, pattern analysis, pruning and prophylaxis. Just about anyone, other than me, can win at chess some of the time, but it takes a true savant to harness the finer elements of theoretical and applied tactical pattern recognition such that any given game is theirs to lose.

Author Benny Lawrence, well known in backroom reading parlors like The Athenaeum and The Royal Academy of Bards as Zipplic, masters both the game of chess and the art of storytelling in her debut novel, The Ghost and the Machine. The year is 1838, and while the Spaniards are focused on the Battle of Peñacerrada, the rest of Europe is obsessed with gizmos, gadgets, and all manner of mechanical contraptions.  Most impressive and entertaining among them is the chess-playing machine known as the Rajah.

Rajah’s Mistress of Ceremonies is inventor, Diana Rushmore, also known as “Rush.”  The drunken, jowly lackey, Caroline Von Hausen, and the diminutive, agoraphobic chess master, Kit, are Rush's companions as they travel across Europe in search of fame and fortune. Kit has toured with Rush, Von Hausen, and the Rajah since she was a child, and knows the rules and the secrets of the show all too well.  But after more than twelve years, the act is growing stale, and Rush is forced to book a private engagement at the Vienna manor house of an eccentric Countess who is a collector of oddities. 

Rush rules the act with an iron fist, but the slightest slip in judgment by Kit brings her face-to-face with the Countess’s mysterious niece, Eleanor.  This violates rule number one that no one is to ever see Kit but Rush and Von Hausen.  Still, the deed is done, and Eleanor begins to insist that Kit attend meals and the obligatory social calls prior to and including chess matches.  As the relationship between Eleanor and Kit twists and turns, Rush and Von Hausen are sucked deeper into the vortex of their individual psychoses, and everything begins to fall apart.  As Rush initiates a strategy for them to flee the engagement, the thin lines between truth and illusion and love and hate suddenly begin to blur, and Kit finds herself a helpless pawn in a deadly game.

I’ll openly admit that on occasion, my reviews fall victim to Shiny Object Syndrome.  That is, I abandon my normally regimented and prioritized list of books for review, and grab one because it has a pretty cover.

The Ghost and the Machine is one of those books.

The simple fact is that the cover art is clean yet striking, and accentuated with great typography.  Still, as nice as a quality cover is, something else has to grab your imagination if the pages are going to keep turning. 

In this case, it was the first three sentences: “People sometimes ask me what it’s like to travel inside a box. I don’t like to answer with sweeping statements, because I think it depends on the box.  Mine was quite nice, as boxes go.”

Ah, there it is, totally and completely hooked in 2.3 seconds.

Written in the first person, The Ghost and the Machine is a smart, cunning, original, and well-written story dotted with dollops of droll observation, dry wit, and gripping pathos.  The characters are by turns quirky, insolent, insightful, deceptive, and all together brilliantly flawed. In addition, the storyline is fresh and tight, and manages to surprise, even though the end game is revealed to the reader early in the narrative.

The writing style and cadence are both consistent with, and apropos to, the Victorian era, and evoke a delightful Dickensian aura rife with vivid description, similes, metaphors, personification, and wonderful imagery to capture the essence of character personalities and traits.  This particular story element is dramatically illustrated by the irrepressible Kit, who we come to learn has lived the majority of her life both as a ghost—and a machine. And, it's backed by the inquisitive Eleanor, who knows more about ghosts and machines than anyone would ever dare guess.

Author Benny Lawrence has a joyously unique voice in the world of lesbian fiction, and The Ghost and the Machine is an utterly fascinating and fantastic read.  

In an effort to circumvent testy letters from readers of traditional lesfic romance, I want to clearly state that this book features only the subtlest suggestion of romance, and mere hints and allegations of lesbian sexual activity—most of which are predatory and clearly not consensual.  There are no heaving bosoms, turgid clits, or moist panties, and the absolute sexiest and sweetest parts of the story take flight in the form of witty banter and shy glances between Kit and Eleanor.

Still, The Ghost and the Machine is an intelligent and unexpected treasure, and Ms. Lawrence is an up-and-coming lesbian robot samurai pirate / author with a solid literary future.  This one is worth a read, and I’m giving The Ghost and the Machine a 5.1 out of 6.0 on the Rainbow Scale—if I ever get to meet Benny Lawrence, I’ll most assuredly ask her to sign my copy in red crayon.


  1. Nice job, Salem. I just started the book for the same reasons you did. I agree, a fresh new voice.

  2. You hooked me in your review. Pretty high rating. I've just got to check it out. Thanks

  3. Once again your review of a book has convinced me to purchase it. It doesn't happen often (this is only the 2nd time; no fault of yours), as I won't read just anything, and it takes a very succinct review to entice me. Thanks for that.

  4. Barrett mentioned this book to me last week and I had to get it. Love the cover - Bedazzled did a nice job with it. Thanks for reviewing something a bit outside the box - lovely to peek over the cardboard edges sometimes and see what other fascinating things are out there!

  5. Ohhh - just finished. What a yummy book. A refreshing break from 'turgid clits and moist panties'. (I'd be happy to spend the rest of my life without ever again hearing, seeing, or speaking the word' moist'. Sorry. I digressed). Concise review. Spot on, although I did take exception a few times with Kit's rather flippant, twentieth century bandying about of the word 'hell' like she was a cowboy riding the range instead of a 19th Century waif locked inside a chess machine. But that's my only complaint and Lawrence's work brilliantly reassures me of my decision to sign with Bedazzled. Queen's Gambit rules!

    1. Bax - Hell, I'm glad to you took TGatM our for a spin! Seriously, thrilled you took a chance on it because it truly is a special little book...even though it was lacking an abundance of moistness. Snort!