· Paperback: 624 pages
· Publisher: Ballantine Books (June 23, 1997)
· Language: English
· ISBN-10: 9780345419088
· ISBN-13: 978-0345419088
· Genre: adventure-fantasy-romance- thriller-historical fiction mix
· Target group: YA and adults
Katherine Neville published her debut novel The Eight in 1988 and, as far as I know, gained a following almost instantly. After reading it I understand why. This complex historical fiction thriller still resonates with the audience after more than 20 years. Well, it resonated with me no problem as I love history, alchemy and any stories related to it. This book was a real feast, adding some chess tricks to the mix.
The plot consists of, basically, two main stories and many shorter interjections, told by different secondary characters. The first story is set in the 1972, when a New York City computer expert, Catherine Velis, is sent to Algeria on what appears to be a punishment job assignment. Catherine is the first woman employed by a very well-known financial audit company and she did the unimaginable – she dared not to listen to some informal suggestions of her superior who, most probably, took a bribe to influence her work. Bad, bad girl. Soon enough, Catherine is approached by a number of mysterious characters – a Russian chess grandmaster, a soothsayer and some of their friends – and is unwillingly caught up in a deadly game of chess, first as a pawn, then as a more important figure. Her job in Algeria turns into the adventure of her life, during which she finds her true love, plenty of occult knowledge about the beginning of human civilization and much much more.
The second story, set in 1790s (the French Revolution), is narrated from the point of view of a young French nun called Mireille. As her nunnery in Montglane is in grave danger Mireille along with her cousin Valentine are on a mission to scatter the many pieces of the famous Charlemagne chess set to prevent them from being found and assembled. The Montglane chess set, like Tolkien’s “The One Ring”, has mystical powers, and must be prevented, by an innocent, from falling into the hands of those who represent evil and anarchy. The person who manages to assemble the set will have an incredible power in his or her hand. Small wonder a number of prominent historical figures, including Robespierre, Napoleon, Katherine the Great and her son, prince Paul, strive to find as many figures as they can, no matter the cost. Mireille must additionally take care of her son, Charlot but she is one strong woman and she finds help in unexpected places.
What I liked:
Plenty. As I mentioned above, I find alchemy an incredible subject and here it was treated with respect, even if that respect was a bit superficial. Apart from that the book touched upon a lot of self-referential “strange loops”, like the Fibbonacci series, Bach’s music, the Moebius strip (the symbol for infinity and the number eight), to name a few. It’s also extremely metaphorical in nature, borrowing from Lewis Carroll I suppose. The complexity of the plot is really on a high level but somehow the narration never loses the entertaining factor so you don’t feel like a complete idiot even if you don’t understand some terms or are not a chess player.
The quality of Katherine Neville’s writing is impeccable. I found out that this author is well-known for travelling a lot, researching her stories to the tiniest detail, which is evident in the plot – unlike Dan Brown’s stories, this one can be treated almost like a travel guide. As for the characters, especially Catherine and Mireille, they are strong, independent women made of flesh and blood – I love such female characters and I get a kick out of it every time. The many secondary real-life characters ( Rousseau, Voltaire, Richelieu, Willam Blacke, Willam Wordsworth and Andre Philidor to quote just the most important ones) who appear in the novel are not simply thrown in to show that the author knew their names and their historical role. Instead, they all play an integral part in the story.
At the very core of The Eight, however, is chess. Anyone who plays chess will soon realize that the entire plot can be tracked on a chess board, as the characters are all pawns, playing under different colours. There are not a lot of people who will not have fun figuring out on whose sides Catherine and Mireille are – and who wins in the end.
What I didn’t like:
I had some small reservations.
The first: too many historical characters knew and coveted the chess set of Montglane throughout ages. How come nobody came and claimed it, even if it meant murdering the poor nuns? It simply didn’t sound realistic after a while.
The second: it seems that nobody today is NOT involved in the global intrigue associated with the Montglane Chess Set, from a simple manservant to a Minister. How come it is still a secret?
The third: some dialogues would need more editing.
The fourth and the last one: a convertible Rolls Royce Corniche driving 1000 miles across the desert? With a broken roof? No way!!! Just look at it!
Even readers with no interest in alchemy and chess will be entertained by this fantasy-adventure. I am looking forward to reading its sequel, ‘The Fire’.