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Checkmate

Sunday, October 19, 2008

THE FIRE

By Katherine Neville

Ballantine. 451 pp. $26

When Katherine Neville's The Eight appeared in 1988, it marked something new: a thriller combining history and fiction in parallel narratives that told the story of a potentially world-changing secret. One strand explored mysterious connections among real historical figures, while another followed present-day adventurers unraveling clues from the past on a perilous quest for hidden treasure -- awfully Da Vinci Code one might say, except that The Eight predated Dan Brown's novel by 15 years. Now Neville returns with The Fire, a much-anticipated sequel, but the question isn't just how she expands on that first novel, but how well she works within what has become a tried-and-true formula.

In structure and elements, the new novel has much in common with The Eight: one story set in the 1820s, another in the 1990s, with characters in each period playing a high-stakes game related to a chess set that once belonged to Charlemagne. At the end of the first novel, the players learned that the board and pieces contained the formula for the elixir of life; here it's discovered that the board may hold more abstract information about natural order and balance -- the Big Picture, it's called at one point, the Original Instructions at others. Whatever it is, it seems worth killing for.

Many characters from The Eight reappear, but the focus now is on Xie, a 12-year-old chess prodigy who has lost a pivotal game due to Amaurosis Scacchistica, or chess blindness -- "the failure to spot a truly obvious danger." En route to a rematch that could make her the youngest grandmaster ever, she and her father encounter even greater dangers: evidence that one of those long-buried pieces may have been unearthed, a discovery that leads to her father's murder.

Ten years later, Xie, now forbidden by her mother to play chess, is summoned to Colorado for her mother's birthday party, but her mother seems to have vanished, leaving behind a series of clues, among them a chessboard laid out with Xie's last game. Soon other guests arrive, including both the opponent to whom Xie lost that game and a group of neighbors with surprising ties to the world of chess. There are eight people in all, of course. The Game is afoot once more.

Part of the interest here is the way that Neville layers and repeats motifs. For example, in the book's historical narrative -- set in the 1820s -- another party of eight gathers to discuss the game, including Napoleon's mother, Letizia Bonaparte, and Lord Byron. But if the plot is a giant chess game, it's odd that none of the pieces gets taken; in both the historic narrative and the modern one, the characters just shuffle around the board spaces, staring menacingly before moving on. And Xie's chess blindness seems a permanent affliction, since she rarely seems to know what's going on.

As for all the historic connections -- from the Magi to Sufi alchemists to Jefferson's influence on the design of Washington, D.C., and right up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- much of the background information sounds as dry and impersonal as a Wikipedia entry, and the characters delivering it are often pretty lifeless. Worse, little of it comes together dramatically. In books like these, the goal is to dazzle the reader with the final revelation of a grand design. But the clues and connections in The Fire offer more convolution than complexity. Neville may once have been the grandmaster of this sub-genre, but The Fire seems a stalemate about halfway through.

-- Art Taylor, who regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.

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