Book report: Winter’s Gambit by Dana McSwain

This is the book that I’m reviewing:

That link has my referral code in it, so I’ll get a few pennies if you buy it after clicking that link.
And you really should buy it, because Dana McSwain is brilliant.

Summary

I’ve read a bunch of Dana McSwain’s stuff over the last few years. Generally speaking, I go through her stuff in the same way as I go through a big tube of Sour Cream and Onion Pringles. There’s no stopping until it’s all gone and then I feel bad. But in this case, it’s because I envy how she writes such clever twisty plotlines and beautiful characters, rather than because of carbohydrate poisoning.

You know how hard it is to find an album where every song is really good? Even your favorite bands rarely crank out albums like that. This books is like those cherished albums.

The Alex and Frank Mythos

This is the fourth book Dana McSwain has published about characters named Alex and Frank and all four books vaguely exist in the same cosmos (kinda / sorta, anyway). Alex, Frank, Alexei, the pizza story, and many other things, places, and people are recurring icons in her books.

Incidentally, the books don’t build on each other and you can read them in any order.

Nothing about her style or subject matter reminds me at all of H. P. Lovecraft, but he also wrote a whole bunch of stories about different people running around in the same setting.

You won’t find any purple prose or eldritch horror here; instead, you’ll find music preference mockery and truck stop food poisoning and skeeball anecdotes. That’s not my point with this comparison. My point is that for both writers, us readers build up in our own heads a composite sketch of this universe from all these partial hints of unseen actors.

Trope synthesis

Don’t get me wrong — they’re characters beyond this overly glib description, but Frank drips with 1980s action movie imagery. And of course, he is tortured by his brutal past doing shady stuff for the government.

Meanwhile Alex projects a caustic exterior protecting an sweetness underneath, which reminded me so much of female roles in 90s movies like Reality Bites and Singles and Before Sunrise. Same thing with how she dresses.

The title

A gambit in chess is when you make a risky move that could put you in a much better position or a much worse position depending on how it plays out.

A gambit strategy is the opposite of building up a fortress and staying inside it. It requires optimism and vulnerability.

The text is breezy and you might fly right past all these poignant struggles between hope and fear, but this is so much more than just an exciting adventure story.

So is this book kind of like an exploration of what would happen if Die Hard and Winona Rider from Heathers took a cross-country road trip to a meeting with a Hollywood movie producer while pursued by Russian mobsters?

Yes. And it works. You’ll probably read it one setting.

Notes from Fight To Win 32 in Cleveland

I noticed a few themes at last night’s Fight To Win 32:

  1. Takedowns are hard unless you’re Darren Branch. I am pretty sure he landed more takedowns in his match (which was like the 20th match) than in all previous fights summed up.
  2. A few fighters hopped back up to their feet once the fight went to the ground, and it usually led to good things. BJJ exposes how other martial arts don’t train what to do when the fight hits the floor. Last night exposes how few fighters can keep the fight on the floor, except when both sides agree to play along.
  3. A good part of the crowd (the casual fans) stop watching when the match begins with one fighter pulling half guard. If the goal is selling tickets, I can understand discouraging this stuff.
  4. Fundamental whitebelt stuff like guard recovery / retention, mount escapes, and surviving in bad positions define the game at all skill levels. This sport really is a lot like chess. You learn the basics quickly and then spend a lifetime mastering them.
  5. Classic submisssions like triangles, cross chokes, and kimura attacks were just as effective and popular as heel hooks at finishing fights.
  6. The crowd was great! I brought my 12-year-old kid there and he had a wonderful time. I never saw any drunk meathead behavior. In fact, the crowd was absolutely quiet during a lot of matches.