Penguin is publishing a really wonderful piece of historical fiction this month, The Chess Machine by Robert Löhr. My review appeared in the May 1 edition of Library Journal.
Journalist Robert Löhr takes the inspiration for his debut novel from one of the most successful hoaxes of all time: the Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton created by Austro-Hungarian Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770. Although the book is well-researched, Löhr's story focuses on the Turk's early years, of which very little is known. He weaves a fictional back-story for the Turk's relatively well-documented later life. The novel is peopled with historical personages like von Kempelen and Empress Marie Theresia as well as completely fictitious characters like the Turk's first operator, dwarf Tibor, Kempelen's assistant Jakob, a Jewish lothario, courtesan-turned-domestic-spy Elise, and the ill-fated Baroness Jesenák, all of whom are well-executed and sympathetic. Löhr's vision of 18th century Europe seems authentic and the inclusion of a murder-and-revenge plot gives the story a satisfying momentum. Translated by award-winning translator Anthea Bell, this novel is highly recommended for readers of historical fiction.