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.

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matt

My name is Matt Wilson and I live in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I love random emails from strangers, so get in touch! matt@tplus1.com.