Friday, October 24, 2008

Katherine Neville: The Eight

When I saw that Katherine Neville’s new book, The Fire, was to be a sequel to her first book, The Eight, I decided to re-read The Eight. I think this is my third time through, over a twenty year time span.

The Eight is a complicated book, told across two time spans, with many flashbacks. Our main characters are Catherine Velis, a musician and a computer expert at a Big Eight accounting firm in New York in the 1970s, and Mireille de Remy, a novice nun in France in the 1790s. Catherine’s story mostly takes place in New York and Algeria. Mireille’s story takes place mostly in Paris and Algeria. For those of you not up on your French history, this timing places Mireille in Paris during the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror.

At the core of the story is a chess set, once owned by Charlemange, reputed to have mystical powers. The set was hidden in Montglane Abbey for a thousand years, because it’s powers were considered too strong to be trusted to secular rulers. But the Abbess decided to scatter and hide the pieces when the revolutionary government closed the abbey and was coming to search for its treasures.

Initially, Mireille’s role was to help scatter the pieces. But as the story progresses, events cause her to try to find them before more sinister people can find them. That also seems to be Catherine’s role.

The mystical story of the power of the chess set is told through flashbacks. Neville drops historical names liberally as she brings different characters in to tell parts of the story:
• Helene de Roque, Abbess of Montglane, tells the story of how the chess set was presented to Charlemange in the year 782, its origin in Moslem lands, and of strange events that ensued.
• Maurice Tallyrand, Bishop of Autun, tells a story of the ghost of Cardinal Richelieu revealing a secret buried with Charlemange, and of Voltaire studying Richelieu’s private journals.
• Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, tells of things she learned from the mathematician, Leonhard Euler at the Prussian court of Frederick the Great.
• The French chess master André Phildor tells of things he learned from Johann Sebastian Bach and Leonhard Euler, also at the Prussian court.
• Letizia Buonaparte (Napoleon’s mother) tells of how Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to learn parts of the secret on Corsica.
• Maximillien Robespierre tells of things he learned from Rousseau, and that Rousseau had learned from Giovanni Casanova in Venice.
• William Blake and William Wordsworth tell of a meeting between Voltaire and Isaac Newton, where Newton tells of what he has learned.

As the mystery unfolds across the continents and the centuries, many characters are killed, and many events surprise us. The chess analogy runs throughout, with black pitted against white. The problem is that the players do not know who all the opposing players are, or what their roles are, or even where the board is.

Who is the black queen and who is the white queen? And why does it matter? I found the plot line to be very complicated, well really, confusing. But engaging all the same. I think I followed it better this third time through.

The first two times I read The Eight, I was satisfied that the book came to a logical conclusion. This time, I have to say that it is clear that there is room for a sequel. And I look forward to reading The Fire.

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