The Chess Machine describes well the push toward greatness and the pull toward dehumanization of new technology (think Modern Times by the immortal Chaplin). Based upon a true story that had the estimable Ben Franklin try his hand at beating the infernal machine and losing, the novel has a dwarf and a mechanical man in its cast of characters.
Tibor, the dwarf who hides within the Turk, a machine built to look like a man sitting at a chess table, is made heartbreakingly real by Lohr’s detailed characterization, especially his near-claustrophobia as he trades a jail cell for the tiny, stifling chamber inside the miraculous machine and the trap constructed of a web of lies he willingly let himself be drawn into. The most poignant part comes near the novel’s end, when the formerly devout Catholic Tibor becomes disillusioned with the trappings of the Church. For a man with so little to comfort him, the loss of his religious beliefs is the cruelest cut of all.
A brilliant touch of humor lightens the mood when a frisky Baroness tries to get hot and heavy with the wooden machine, leaving lip prints on him - and possibly splinters on her. The hooey hits the fan when she turns up dead, which in a time of superstition is quickly attributed to a curse of the mechanical man.
Equally impressive is Lohr’s attention to detail and copious research into circa 1770 behavior both good and bad, and fashion brings the story to life visually. Once in a while the plot is a bit plodding, but for the most part it is an interesting and fun read. Historical novel lovers will enjoy the combination of real events and people and the skillful imagination of the author.