Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Eight - Katherine Neville

1988, 598 pages. Genre : Historical Action; Cri-Fi (Crichton Fiction). Overall Rating : B.

   .Two intertwined stories, one set in the 1970's; the other in the 1790's. The modern tale centers around Catherine "Cat" Velis, a computer geek who's about to be transferred to Algiers due to office politics. The older tale is set primarily in France, and follows Mereille de Remy, a novice nun whose cloistered life is about to be upended by the infamous Reign of Terror. Both women soon find themselves trying to collect all the pieces to an ancient, mystical, rumored-to-be-all-powerful chess set that is also coveted by the bad guys.

.What's To Like...
    The emphasis is on the storyline, which is complex, but not confusing. There is the central theme of chess, which has been a lifelong passion of mine. A lot of the book takes place in Algeria, which is a nice change of scenery. Some attention even is paid to the etymology of "Car". As in "Carthage" and "Hamilcar". Kewlness.
There are plenty of twists in the storyline to keep you on your toes. Telling the good guys from the bad guys is quite the challenge. Both Mereille and Cat are strong female leading characters. (Well, the queens are the strongest pieces on the chessboard.) Indeed, there really aren't any weak women in the book. Amazingly, the men aren't pansies either.
Last but not least - there's even some romance. Enough to appeal to women readers, but not enough to lose me.
You are reminded a few too many times that there's a "bigger game" being played. And there's too much "telegraphing" with sentences like "Little did I know that thirty blocks away, a move was about to take place that would soon alter the course of my life." (page 130).

.Once in a while the plot gets clunky. For example, at one point Cat is being chased by a host of gun-shooting baddies, and is forced to jump off a pier into the Mediterranean. Alas (sez you), she has a knapsack of valuables to weigh her down, including a priceless ancient book. Lucky for her, that book just happens to be in a waterproof container (in a desert?), and she uses the weight of the knapsack to walk (underwater) along the bottom of the pier to safety, whilst the baddies wait for her to surface at the end of the pier to shoot her. Yeah. I don't think so.

.But these are minor. My biggest peeve with The Eight is the printing. A lot of the "e's" have their cross-bar missing, making them look like "c's". So your reading gets interrupted by things like trcc, pcacc, crcatc, ctc.

."It's a great huge game of chess that's being played all over the world....Oh what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them. I wouldn't mind being a pawn, if only I might join - though of course I should like to be a Queen best." (Lewis Carroll, from Through the Looking Glass)
This is a well-researched book. I can attest to that re the Chess parts. Some critics were turned off by the name-dropping. But I'd much rather read about Napoleon, William Blake, and Robespierre than some unknown commoner. That's what historical fiction is all about.

.Others didn't like the ending, but I disagree. I won't put any spoilers here; so let's just say the ending was similar to, yet better than, that of The Da Vinci Code.

.I recommend this to anyone who likes to read Dan Brown and Michael Crichton, neither of which has put out anything new lately. Yeah I know, Crichton's dead, but that doesn't stop Robert Ludlum. This was Ms. Neville's first published book, so the quibbles are quite forgiveable. She's written a half dozen or so since then, including (15 years later) the sequel to this story, called The Fire. I'm sure I'll be reading it sometime soon.

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