Check & Mate follows Mallory, an 18-year-old who chooses to reenter the world of competitive chess after being forced to provide financially for her family. Unintentionally, she beats the world champion, Nolan, and she’s suddenly thrown into the chess limelight. But she gave up chess years ago, and heading back into the game causes some changes in her life.
As someone who has read all of Ali Hazelwood’s adult books, I was excited to read her first YA offering. I was curious to see something outside of her traditional academic setting, and I think the chess backdrop worked really well. As a very casual player, I learned some new things about chess, and I enjoyed that. It also provided a great way for the two main characters to be competitive in a realistic and healthy way, which is a common theme within Hazelwood’s other books.
I particularly liked the light shed on the parentification Mallory experiences over the course of the story. She has been the main breadwinner for her family for at least a year, and that’s a lot to put on a child’s shoulders. However, people around her point this out and try to help her understand that she can still be a daughter and a sister without taking on that burden. I believe this is an important thing to discuss, especially among today’s young people, and I think it is a thoughtful take on the topic.
I do think the ending was a bit rushed. The first and second parts of the book felt well-paced, but the third part went by in a blur. Maybe that was intentional, but it felt like an odd change of pace compared to the rest of the story, especially because the final third was when we see the most growth in Mallory. While I could definitely feel for the main character, I think it would’ve been more impactful if more time had been spent on it.
I did predict what tore Mallory’s family apart and why she became the main breadwinner, and that’s okay. I wasn’t reading this expecting there to be a ton of surprises. Having it confirmed on the page, though, did make me sympathize with Mallory and helped me understand why she made the choices she did, especially when it came to her future and life goals.
Overall, Hazelwood’s Check & Mate is a great read for YA fans, fans of chess, or readers just wanting something a bit different than the norm of the genre. Many contemporary YA books are in a school setting, but Check & Mate gives readers a new backdrop to experience while utilizing common and well-loved themes, like young love, choosing your fate, and opening up to family.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, for review.