Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Eight by Katherine Neville (audio)

Book Description:
New York City, 1972—A dabbler in mathematics and chess, Catherine Velis is also a computer expert for a Big Eight accounting firm. Before heading off to a new assignment in Algeria, Cat has her palm read by a fortune-teller. The woman warns Cat of danger. Then an antiques dealer approaches Cat with a mysterious offer: He has an anonymous client who is trying to collect the pieces of an ancient chess service, purported to be in Algeria. If Cat can bring the pieces back, there will be a generous reward. 

The South of France, 1790—Mireille de Remy and her cousin Valentine are young novices at the fortresslike Montglane Abbey. With France aflame in revolution, the two girls burn to rebel against constricted convent life—and their means of escape is at hand. Buried deep within the abbey are pieces of the Montglane Chess Service, once owned by Charlemagne. Whoever reassembles the pieces can play a game of unlimited power. But to keep the Game a secret from those who would abuse it, the two young women must scatter the pieces throughout the world. . . .

On audio, this was an engrossing story that revolves around a legendary chess set known as the Montglane Service.  Once owned by Charlemagne, the priceless set is rumored to give untold power to whoever owns it in it's entirety.  The individual pieces of the chess service have been hidden for centuries but the hunt for them has never ceased.  The story flips back and forth between 1972 and 1790's France, following the "real life" chess game with it's various players who are trying to get their hands on the various chess pieces. With a Da Vinci Code sort of plotline, loaded with mystery, suspense, historical intrigue, murder and some humor - I enjoyed it.  I imagine being a chess player helped enormously as well.  Fortunately, I've been playing chess as long as I can remember. 

The story focuses on two main characters. Catherine Velis, our heroine from the 1972 portion of the book, is a CPA for one of the Big Eight firms in New York City (get it - Big Eight?)  She's a brilliant mathematician and computer whiz.  She's also a music major.  Basically, she covers all the bases of what is needed for later on in the story to crack the code of how to find the Montglane Service, which is complicated. The only thing she doesn't seem to know is how to play chess.  That's where Lily comes in.  The daughter of a dear friend of Catherine's, Lily is a grand master chess player.  She's also one of the best parts of the book.  I loved Lily, with her bleach blond hair, New Yawk accent and penchant for driving in a powder blue Rolls Corniche (that has no roof - which comes into play later in the book in a sand storm, no less!)  Catherine and Lily make the unlikeliest of female buddy teams a la Thelma and Louise.  Both become embroiled in the modern day search for the medieval chess pieces.  Fending off Russian spies and nasty Algerian secret police, they travel from New York to Algiers and back again, crossing deserts and oceans.  All to find out what is the big deal about these friggin' pieces and why people are committing murder to get them!  Most of the time Cat and Lily are clueless about the very real danger they're in, but gradually with the help of other players in the game, they catch on.  Catherine (Cat) has a love interest or two which added a little sizzle to the story, but for the most part, the story centers on the search and mystery behind the pieces.

The other side of the story centers on Mireille. A young novitiate at Montglane Abbey in 1790, her life is turned upside down during the "Terror" after the onset of the French Revolution.  Mireille is one of a few who must protect the Montglane Pieces at all costs.  Many have died guarding these pieces and Mireille takes her job very seriously.  She travels from Paris to Corsica to Algeria.  Mireille is fearless and her whole life becomes dedicated to guarding the pieces to make sure they never get into the hands of power hungry despots who are aware of their legend and crave their power.  We visit the court of Catherine the Great of Russia and the home of French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a confidante and lover of Mireilles.  We follow her as she avenges her cousin, Valentine - a memorable moment with Jean-Paul Marat.  We follow her adventurous lifetime, which brings us to the conclusion and the ultimate revelation of what is so special about these pieces.  I found it slightly anti-climatic, but it all made sense. 

I really enjoyed much of this book, some parts dragged, but other parts made up for it.  It has been on my TBR list for a long time and I'm glad I finally tackled it.  The plot is complex, but I was still able to follow it on audio, which was narrated by Susan Denaker.  She did a great job with the accents, although sometimes Cat and Lily sounded too alike.  I'm leaving a lot out in order to avoid spoilers, but if you enjoy books like The Da Vinci Code and The Historian that have a detective story intermingled with an historical and mystical legend then you'll probably enjoy The Eight.

This book takes you from modern day Fifth Avenue to the intrigue and power of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.  We live in the post-revolutionary home of artist, Jacques-Louis David in Paris and travel to the timeless beauty and danger of the deserts of North Africa and Casbah of Algiers.  If ever a story will spark your wanderlust, this is it. I know it sure did with me!  I recommend it.


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