Monday, June 23, 2014

Review: The Eight by Katherine Neville

My book club likes to choose different genres throughout the year in order to push each of us out of our reading ruts. Katherine Neville's The Eight was a push for me since I neither read thrillers nor play chess. I don't love mysteries and I haven't found a book that does slight of hand (eyes?) that I've liked since I was young and reading Ellen Raskin's masterful The Westing Game. I might have grumbled over the group's choice but I was a dutiful member and read it. And it was fine. It didn't really change my perceptions of the genre but since I didn't hate it, I consider the whole thing generally a success.

Opening at the end of the eighteenth century at Montglane Abbey in the south of France, two young novices are told of the existence of the Montglane Service, a chess set imbued with dangerous powers, given to Charlemagne and crafted by the Moors. The one who possesses all of the pieces will be immensely powerful, invincible and immortal. The nuns of the Abbey have guarded the service faithfully but now the political climate in France and the aspirations and cold intelligence of those on the rise have endangered its hiding place. The service must be scattered to the four winds in order to keep it from coming together as a set and granting the wrong person its strength. Mireille and her cousin Valentine are to take a piece of the service and flee to Paris to their guardian. They will risk everything to keep their piece and those of others safe even in the face of the Reign of Terror.  And their opponents are some of the brightest, most calculating minds of their time.

Meanwhile, in 1972, Catherine (Cat) Velis is about to leave for Algeria for work when she is warned about the danger to her there. She is a computer expert for IBM being sent to work with the Algerian government where she will come into contact with the newly formed OPEC. Not long before she is to leave, she is approached by an antiques collector who wants her to negotiate for a very old chess service there. Her work and her search for the chess pieces will collide and make for a thrilling, cat-and-mouse game through Northern Africa as she learns more about this chess service that people will even kill to posses.

The novel is certainly rife with intrigue as this dangerous game plays out across Europe, Africa, and America and across history, touching many of the most famous people of the day. The characters are fairly typical for this genre and it is pretty easy to guess who is on the side of good and who is evil, even without putting them mentally on a chess board, although a knowledge of chess moves certainly helps a reader appreciate the novel and the characters who people it better. The double narratives are equally interesting and they do eventually intertwine in an unexpected way. They are always connected by the chess service but the way that the late eighteenth century directly touches the middle twentieth century is unexpected and mystical. Both parallel stories gallop along at a pretty decent clip with danger, close calls, mystery, and revelations around every corner. But the writing itself isn't outstanding and has the potential to bog the reader down although some of the ideas contained here are smart: Fibonacci numbers, chess strategy, music, and their connections to and mirrors of each other. Suspense and thriller fans who want a roller coaster ride will certainly appreciate this more than I, the non-mathematical, non-chess playing, tone deaf me, did.  But over all, even for me, it was a quick and decent read.

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