Overview (No Spoilers):
Every century the gods participate in a contest for the Jade Throne, which has been most recently occupied by Batu, the God of War. With his influence reigning supreme, war has raged across the world, but with a new contest drawing nigh the gods are all throwing in their lots to become the new Tianjuan, god in charge of heaven and earth. The contest itself requires the gods to hide what they hold most dear throughout the world and find a mortal champion to embark on a bizarre scavenger hunt to seek out the other god’s treasures. The rules are quite clear as to the aid and guidance the champions can receive from their sponsor, though the stakes can quickly turn deadly, both with the traps surrounding the precious items and other contestants who might be looking to steal the prize by permanently eliminating the competition.
With other gods seeking out warriors, thieves, or assassins, Natsuko, the Goddess of Lost Items and Missed Opportunities, steps out of the stereotypical champion mold by recruiting a world renowned strategist, the former Art of War. Yuu is broken and drowning herself in drink when Natsuko finds her. With Yuu’s history as the Art of War weighing heavily upon her, details of the strategist’s past slowly emerge as the contest progresses. That said, Yuu begins to heal as she finds new purpose with each new item discovered and more importantly its associated challenge solved.
As a main character, Yuu is detailed and complex, though not necessarily likable. Yuu finds her way once she becomes caught up in the competition, and along with key revelations about her past, she is transformed as a character who grows on the reader. Regardless of how brief they are in the story, the supporting cast is delightfully distinct and unique, from the determined Li Bang and legendary Roaring Tiger, to the creepily indestructible Ticking Clock. The goddess Natsuko is my favorite with her many lost items that would conveniently pop into the story as the need arises. I especially enjoyed the backstory that would accompany such items as there would be just enough detail that the reader could easily put themselves in the place of the unfortunate individual. Particularly, when one loses as many things as I do.
The choreographed fight scenes in the Pawn’s Gambit are truly excellent, but what sets the various sequences apart is that Hayes crafts the exchange through the eyes of an expert strategist. I often find reading long drawn out conflicts to be tedious, but Hayes details fights that are filled with unexpected twists and turns that keeps the reader guessing right up until the very end.
Overall, between Hayes’ detailed worldbuilding and vivid characters, I could not stop listening to the Pawn’s Gambit, especially with my curiosity irrevocably piqued by this elaborate, and evolving scavenger hunt of the gods.
Additional Insights (Spoilers Abound):
- Who occupied the Jade Throne before Batu? Could he not put in his own champion into the contest?
- If century after century the gods are putting in their most treasured objects into this contest, wouldn’t the offerings become quite dilute after a while? Or does the victor return the items usually as Yuu did? What would have happened to the items if Yuu had died in the contest with Batu?
- It seems like Yokai (vengeful spirits) would be lurking around every corner. Are they rare to run into?
- The Ticking Clock was such a very good villain! He just couldn’t be stopped and kept showing back up. Plus his fight sequences were so well mapped out.
- How do the Techniques work? How are they learned or taught? Could have Yuu taught Bing hers? I loved that Natsuko gifted Bing a Technique. What is his path now that he parted with Yuu?
- Yuu as the new Goddess of War is another interesting twist. How did she feel about now achieving goddess status, particularly when her influence will be war? Can she use her Technique? Will the skill be forever lost now? As a reader I felt surprisingly conflicted by this twist emotionally. Sure I was happy she had survived, but felt as though she might hate her new role.