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Jacob Levich
Pushing Pawns
Dima Novak, author

He's got the moves. On the street and over the board.

Urban high school kid Moses Middleton hoped that chess competition could be a ticket out of mediocrity, but everything goes pear-shaped after a disastrous tournament. That’s when he meets Viktor, a mad Russian grandmaster who agrees to coach the team by revealing the secrets of Soviet chess.

Together with his crew -- charismatic psychopath P.D. Morales, gifted violinist and expert fencer Esther Toussaint, shy anime fan Maggie Wang, and the new boy, Albanian chess wizard Zamir Hoxha -- Moses vows to take the world of New York City scholastic chess by storm. But trouble’s on the way, in the form of neighborhood bullies, a vengeful vice principal, racist gentrifiers, the snooty rich kids from Galton Prep, and, worst of all, a sexual predator who could destroy a young woman’s life and the team’s newfound solidarity.

Perfect for young fans of The Queen's Gambit, this innovative YA novel combines humor, drama, and social insight.

Plot/Idea: 7 out of 10
Originality: 6 out of 10
Prose: 8 out of 10
Character/Execution: 6 out of 10
Overall: 6.75 out of 10


Plot/Idea: Although Novak’s premise initially appears casual, the story’s events nicely illustrate the characters’ moral transformations. Substantial plot twists are lacking, but the storyline’s steady flow culminates in a tidy ending ideal for its intended audience.

Prose: Novak nails the story’s prose with a coherent first-person perspective and relevant phrasing. There are a few awkward moments, but the majority of the writing is fitting for the text.

Originality: Pushing Pawns tells a classic coming-of-age tale, but the author stays mainly in a superficial realm as opposed to creating gritty and resonating circumstances – the result is more of a watered-down version than an unparalleled story.

Character Development/Execution: Novak’s characters start out strong, and readers will expect them to prove tenacious and compelling. Although some of the main players take a surface dive into distressing events, they are never quite fleshed out, leaving an incomplete impression overall.

Date Submitted: April 05, 2022

Jessica Thomas for IndieReader

A high school freshman and his friends take on the ruthless world of competitive scholastic chess with the help of an eccentric grandmaster.

After a scholastic chess tournament goes sideways for Moses Middleton and his disjointed team, his aspirations for greatness are nearly dashed. Fearing their impending split, he employs a Russian grandmaster to coach their comeback revenge tour with Soviet chess strategy against a preppy school of rich kids. The change is swift and successful, like one of Moses’ clever moves in the heat of a difficult match. But real-life drama threatens the existence of their newly tight-knit Furious Five—can their friendships and teamwork see them through to the endgame when the stakes are so high?

PUSHING PAWNS is an absolute powerhouse of a YA novel from start to finish. Smart, witty banter with a socially-aware Gen Z voice, the novel is fun, vivid at every turn. In the most diverse neighborhood in New York City, chess intersects with classism, as Moses and his team of vibrant friends square off across their boards against a privileged school of rich kids. With guidance from a wizened Russian grandmaster and his old school Soviet tactics, Moses and friends recognize the value in strong friendships—how loyalty blossoms, how it can solidify them as a united, butt-kicking team. The characters are as vibrant as the history of chess itself—including Moses’ poignant, and often laugh-out-loud narrative style. Even those who have no particular interest in the game will fall in love with the characters and Moses’ unique point of view. From P.D., the habitual truant with serious charm, to Esther, a violinist and fencer with a love for speaking in Jane Austen quotes, to Moses’ rotating housemates who become family, this book has so much to recommend it.

PUSHING PAWNS tackles real-life issues of gentrification, classism, racism, and sexual abuse in a thoughtful, nuanced way. All of this entwines with the game of chess, which itself is wrapped in politics, philosophy, and brilliant strategy. Throughout, the tone is refreshingly hopeful and honest. Competitive chess scenes fly off the page, choreographed with the high-stakes action and breathless pace of a fight. Moses describes them like battle scenes, captivating from each opening straight through to the endgame. A refreshingly hopeful contemporary about the importance of having a support system, complete with a satisfying dose of revenge.

Triumphant and clever, Dima Novak’s PUSHING PAWNS is an absolute powerhouse of a YA novel. Smart, witty banter with a socially-aware Gen Z voice, it’s refreshingly hopeful fun from start to finish.


Kirkus Reviews

(starred review)

This debut YA novel sees a Black chess enthusiast commit more fully to his high school teammates and—through their camaraderie—tackle problems away from the board.

Fourteen-year-old Moses “Mose” Middleton attends Q722, a public school in Jackson Heights, Queens. Mose is a keen amateur chess player and has organized a team to compete in tournaments run by the NYC Chess in the Schools program. Though united by a desire to prove themselves, Mose and his friends have difficulties that prevent them from giving their best. Mose is prone to concentration lapses, often the result of focusing too much on his opponent. P.D. “Personality Disorder” Morales is a genius underachiever with truancy issues that frequently extend to chess. (He will wander off midcompetition and forfeit games.) Maggie Wang has problems with a creepy uncle at home. Esther Toussaint is a self-driven overachiever with little time for the game. And Zamir Hoxha is a recently arrived Albanian immigrant who is being bullied at school. If the team is to survive, Mose knows he’ll need to bring the members closer together. His first step? To seek out the mentorship of Viktor Fleischmann, a Russian player. Viktor “was rumored to be an international grandmaster who’d lost his marbles and run out of luck.” Under his guidance, will the five young players become greater than the sum of their troubled parts? In this series opener, Novak writes in the first person, past tense from Mose’s perspective. The dialogue is convincingly Generation Z, and Mose is an able representative of a non-White, unprivileged upbringing—someone forced by life to be acutely aware of racial and social dynamics yet determined to rise above injustice and always behave appropriately (he is mindful of toxic masculinity). Mose is not without flaws, but he remains a thoughtful, self-aware protagonist who is easy to cheer for. The other characters are well drawn, and the author is both measured and respectful in presenting different ideologies. The chess content is accurate throughout yet not so detailed as to put off nonplayers. The story moves quickly but naturally, weaving with assurance between the chess plot and Mose’s and his friends’ various issues. Young readers should very much approve and enjoy.

Eye-opening and engaging; a triumphant mashup of underdog sporting contest and teen drama.

Pushing Pawns awarded Kirkus star

Pushing Pawns has received a starred review from Kirkus, calling it "eye-opening and engaging; a triumphant mashup of underdog sporting contest and teen drama."

"One of the most coveted designations in the book industry, the Kirkus Star marks books of exceptional merit," says Kirkus.