Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Chess Machine

The Chess Machine is based on actual events that occurred during 1770 in Pressburg, what is today the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava. During an era in which science and entertainment were still closely related, the Habsburg Empire became enthralled with Wolfgang von Kempelen's unexpected invention, a chess-playing automation that became known as the Mechanical Turk. This machine, fronted by a turban-wearing "mechanical Turk" who moved his own chess pieces with a life-like right arm and hand easily defeated the best chess players it encountered in exhibition matches around the empire.

Kemplen's invention brought him instant fame and seemed certain to also bring him his fortune. After all, he had invented the first machine that was capable of thought, a machine that could, in fact, think better than the human beings it encountered. But, as many of Kemplen's scientific rivals suspected, the Mechanical Turk was too good to be true. Rather than having created a thinking machine, Kemplen had instead built an automation that depended entirely on the chess-playing dwarf who was hidden inside the wooden box housing the useless clockworks that appeared to make the machine work.

Tibor Scardenelli, the Italian dwarf, hired by Kemplen to be the brains of his machine, is a remarkable chess player but he soon begins to tire of the secret life he is forced to live. Tibor comes to feel that he is living a prisoner's life, always locked away in one room of Kemplen's home or inside the chess machine itself. For the sake of keeping the illusion of a chess-playing automation alive, no one can be allowed to know of his existence. Despite Tibor's growing uneasiness with the scam that he is so large a part of, everything goes well for the chess machine until one of Kemplen's court rivals manages to place his lover, Galatea, into the Kemplen household as a spy. In time, Galatea, known to Kemplen as his house servant Elise, comes to know the truth.

But Kemplen and his team have bigger problems than Elise. After a performance at the ball celebrating the marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, a young countess is found dead. There are no witnesses to her death but she has left traces of her rouge on the Turk's face, and many come to believe that the Turk has seduced and murdered the woman. Especially taken with this notion is the young woman's brother who is determined to take revenge on the Turk and its owner.

Much like one of his own chess pieces, Wolfgang von Kemplen soon finds himself being pushed into defensive moves that require more and more ruthlessness on his part. His Mechanical Turk comes to own him in a way that he never owned the Turk.

Robert Lohr's The Chess Machine is filled with the level of period detail and unforgettable characters that can make historical fiction so rewarding. But at the same time this is a novel full of adventure and psychological insights, one with a story that will stay with the reader for a long time.

Rated at: 3.5


  1. I'm so glad you liked this one as it should be arriving on my doorstep in the next couple of days!

  2. I have heard about this book! It sounds really good! I think I will have to put it on my list of books to read, "Sometime in the Future!"

  3. I'll look forward to hearing what you think of the book, Jenclair. It took me a few pages to get into the flow of the story, but after that I enjoyed it a lot.

  4. Stephanie, it's a worthy add to your "TBR later" list for sure. If you get around to it, be sure to let me know what you thought of it.

  5. I also have a copy of this waiting to be read--I hope to get to it soon. I love well done historical novels. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  6. I can't wait to hear what you think of it, Danielle. I was slow to get into the book but when I got used to the character and place names the story took over and I enjoyed it very much. Let me know.

  7. hey there sam - just checking in at your place upon return from my vacation and, how funny, I just picked up a Copy of The Chess Machine in a bookstore in Dublin. It needs to sit below a few others in the tbr pile until I get through the summer reading challenge but you have whet my appetite!

  8. Sounds like you had a great vacation, Ted. Ireland can be wonderful this time of year.

    I do think that you'll enjoy the book, especially if historical fiction is something you like to read. With its special twist, this one is fun.