$14.95, paperback, 624 pages
Usually when a novel is described as dense, it’s a criticism. In the case of The Eight by Katherine Neville, density is a compliment.
The novel begins in a French abbey at the turn of the 19th century. The abbey guards the Montglane Service, a mysterious chess set said to hold mystical powers. The chess set was a gift to Charlamange from a Muslim governor of Barcelona. The French Revolution takes the abbey from the church, forcing the abbess to disperse the chess pieces throughout the world carried by the nuns and novitiates. Two end up in Paris and serve as a gathering point for the others in case of trouble. This being the revolution, trouble ensues.
The main character, Mirielle, watches her best friend die at L’Abbaye Prison and sets off on a journey to collect the remaining pieces. Along the way, her story entwines with historical figures such as Napoleon, Tallyrand and Catherine the Great. Mirelle’s quest takes her to Corsica and Algeria and forces her to reconcile mysteries of music composition, mathematics and chess.
Intercut with Mirielle’s story is a story of another Catherine. This Catherine is a computer expert working for OPEC in the early 1970s. Neville first published The Eight in 1988; Ballantine re-released it in conjunction with the first release of the book’s sequel. Catherine’s cousin is a chess expert, and the two become drawn into the Montglane mystery. Catherine’s own search for the missing pieces take her to Algeria.
The combination of fact and fiction added to the incredible amount of detail could make the novel incomprehensible. A dizzying array of facts and myths about chess, math, the Middle East and history come at the reader quickly. It can be difficult to keep track of the numerous characters. Diagrams may be helpful to remember who’s on what side.
What saves the novel from becoming unwieldy is the parallel adventure stories. The Eight isn’t merely a collection of details; it uses those details to present completely realized locations, characters and times. The danger to the heroines seems real because everything else around them is real. A reader has little difficulty picturing the streets of Paris or the Desert of Thirst. All of the characters have individual identities.
A cover blurb compares The Eight to The Da Vinci Code. In terms of a plot than hinges on a centuries-old mystery, the comparison is apt. Neville, however, tells a much more interesting story in a more intelligent fashion than Dan Brown did.
Neville never writes down to a supposed common readership. Knowledge of Napoleon or the French revolution isn’t necessary to understand the novel – enough is in the text to carry a reader to the next scene – but Neville seems to expect the reader to have a basic grasp of world history or the inspiration to do further research when the novel ends.
The Eight may not be a fast page-turner á la The Da Vinci Code, but it is an intelligent and entertaining read.