” It is my belief that this secret took the shape of a formula, and that this formula was the cause of the downfall of the Kingdoms of all time, Kingdoms that stand only as legends in our history today. And the Moors, despite their initiation into the secret knowledge and despite their fear of it, did transcribe this formula into the Montglane Service. ” (An Exchange of Queens, p.114)
Turning the last page of The Eight is a big breath of relief not only because the resolution is a reasonably satisfactory one but also because the process leading to this resolution itself is overwrought. This novel, first published in 1988, has long achieved almost cult status in some circles, depending on whether one is interested in plot, in ideas, or in writing.
The book features two intertwined story lines set centuries apart. The first being 1972, which follows American computer expert Catherine Velis as she is sent to Algeria for a special assignment for the OPEC. But an antique dealer commissions her to look for a mysterious chess set while she is there. The second plot, set in 1790 and the years around French Revolution, revolves around Mireille, a novice nun at Montglane Abbey who is on a mission to dispose part of the same chess set.
But you don’t know that the Montglane Service lies at the very center of the storm that’s sweeping the monarchy throughout Europe—that will cast off the yoke of oppression forever. (Death of Kings, p.387)
Both plot lines center around the search for a mystical chess set, the Montglane Service, and attempts to discover the human counterparts to various chess pieces (the hero and villain in each time line are the Black and White Queens, respectively). The board, once complete, along with special move pattern, will supposedly impart unlimited power to whoever possesses it, and thus leaders over history from Marat, Napoleon, Catherine the Great to Muammar Khaddafi run throughout the book, employing agents and spies, and looking to get their hands on it. Perceiving the trouble that will ensue regardless who is in possession of this power, the Abbess of Monglane commissions her nuns to scatter the key pieces of the chess set previously buried in the monastery dated back to Emperor Charlemagne’s time on the throe of French Revolution. The mystic origin of these precious pieces, a gift from the Moors, sends both Mireille and Catherine to the depth of the Algerian desert where they will discover the shocking secret initiated into the chess set.
So this hokum of a brouhaha is an imaginary confluence of many historical characters, including leaders, mathematicians, scientists, philosophers, poets, and musician. Some, like Euler, Newton, and Voltaire, claim to have deciphered the secret formula belying the chess set. There’s no short of actions, almost too excessive actions. It’s high-paced mystery/thriller but not quite effective to be a page-turner. If it is not bogged down by overwhelming historical details, it is weakened by Neville’s descent into cliché. It’s the idea that shines in The Eight: it begins with history but develops into a wider scope, branching out to mathematics, chemistry, physics and astronomy; meanwhile, somehow everything gets connected to the game of chess. It is this premise by which reader will remember The Eight, not all the tedious and sometimes contrived details of the story. The denouement doesn’t justify the tendency to overhype its revelations.
598 pp. Ballatine. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
Filed under: Contemporary Literature, General Fiction, Literature, Mystery, Thriller Tagged: | Books, Contemporary Literature, General Fiction, History, Katherine Neville, Literature, Mystery, The Eight, Thriller