February 27, 2003

The Eight, by Katherine Neville

Usually, I can read a mystery in much less than the week it took me to complete this one. They're light and don't normally require thoughtful reading to get the plot, etc. But this one was pleasantly different. Now on paper, the premise does sound fairly sappy. Sometime in antiquity, ancient people made a powerful chess set that holds the key to some mysterious formula. The set was owned by Charlemagne and then disappeared from sight but not from memory. Two narrators tell the story of its resurfacing and the measures taken to keep it out of the hands of those wanting to use it for personal advancement. Surrounding the mystique of the chess set is the number 8, which laid on its side is also the symbol for infinity.

The first narrator is a nun in the abbey that part of the chess set has been buried in for 200 years. The French Revolution is on and Marat has learned of its existence. The abbess shuts the abbey and sends the pieces individually away with trusted nuns, designating Mireille to be the locus of the network. She watches the Terror, meets just about everyone important in the whole mess and her story goes from there. Back in the future, Catherine Velis is narrating the strange story of her involvement with the chess set. She is a computer programmer/data analyst who dabbles in painting and mathematics. On New Years Eve, a fortune teller reads her hand and gives her a strange prophecy, which she, of course, promptly forgets. She also has a figure eight described in the fold lines of her hands. Strange things start happening, she meets a ton of interesting people and her story goes from there.

Before I read this I really didnít know more than the basic moves in chess--nor did I wish to know more. But the book's descriptions of the mathematical properties of the game, the mathematics of music and acoustics, and the use of numbers in mystical beliefs was fascinating. Whether it's actually true or not I haven't a clue, but it made a darn good story. Even switching back and forth between narrators wasn't cumbersome because the mystery was so riveting. I am definitely going to seek out more of her fiction to see if it holds forth with the same quality.

Posted by Deb English at February 27, 2003 07:19 PM