Visions of Paradise

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Eight

Two aspects of fiction which appeal to me are historical tales seeped in the atmosphere of the era in which they are set, and stories about passionate people involved in some form of art or science. Katherine Neville’s 1989 novel The Eight easily qualifies in both regards, although the characters are passionate about the game of chess.

The premise is that during his reign Charlemagne was presented by eight moors with a gift as a token for his assisting them in Spain. The gift was a supernatural chess set which seemingly took over his mind while imbuing him with supernatural power. Fearful of the set’s power, Charlemagne orders it hidden beneath the Montglane Abby in France.

The bulk of the novel follows two simultaneous storylines, both spearheaded by attempts to find the legendary Montglane Service. During the French Revolution the radical government decides to confiscate all Church wealth, including sending soldiers to Montglane to seek the chess set. The abbess is the only person who knows precisely the location of the service, knowledge which was passed down for one thousand years from abbess to abbess. She separates the set into its component pieces and orders various nuns and noviciates to take the pieces into hiding. This portion follows the activities of three people: the abbess who flees to Russia where her childhood friend has become czarina Catherine the Great; and novitiates Mereille and Veronica who take several pieces to Paris.

However, Paris is in the midst of turmoil and the infamous “Terror” during which chaos reigns and King Louis XVI is put on trial by the populace. The girls befriend Talleyrand, bishop of Autin and an important French leader, who assists their efforts to keep the chess set out of the hands of such dangerous people as Robespierre and Marat.

Eventually, Talleyrand brings part of the service to England, while Mereille flees to Corsica where she befriends another future leader of France, Napoleane, and his family.

Simultaneously with this story, in 1972 Catherine Velis is a computer expert who has fallen afoul of the leadership of her “Big Eight” financial firm for refusing to participate in illegal activities, so she is sent to Algeria to work as punishment. Meanwhile, she attends a major chess tournament with her friend, Lily, a rich, spoiled, flamboyant daughter of one of Catherine’s dearest friends. Participating in the match is Solarin, the “bad boy” of Russian chess, who realizes that his opponent in their initial match is cheating. Solarin demands a recess in the match and confronts his opponent in a men’s room. Shortly thereafter his opponent is murdered.

The Eight has a lot of strengths which make it fascinating reading. Neville is very strong at creating setting and ambiance. Both revolutionary France and modern Algeria are breathtaking, with the former truly frightening in his chaos. The portions set in those two countries were breathtaking, and worth the entire novel. I also enjoyed the portions about chess, and the people who lived for it.

There were some typical thriller flaws in the novel though. Everybody except Catherine seems to know what is happening in the clandestine hunt for the Montglane Service. All her friends seem to be involved in the plot somehow, all giving her mysterious hints and clues rather than actually share information with her. And the ultimate denouement is as much pseudo-science as an episode of Star Trek.

Fortunately, the novel’s other strengths were so well-done that the thriller aspect did not hurt it much, although, for me at least, the novel might have been even stronger without the mysterious deaths and assassins. But that is my personal bias speaking, and the thriller aspect might appeal to other readers moreso than it did for me. In any case, this was an exciting novel about history and chess which I recommend highly.


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