The Eight by Katherine Neville is one of my favorite novels of all time. This fascinating adventure-fantasy tells the story of the quest for the Montglane Service, a legendary chess set once owned by Charlemagne, which contains the key to a dangerous and powerful secret. The pieces, the chessboard, and the cover for the chess set contain symbols which translate into a formula. Whoever deciphers the formula will have immense power over the world. The quest is carried out by two brave, intelligent heroines in two different time periods: Mireille de Remy, a novice nun at the time of the French Revolution, and Catherine Velis, a computer expert for a Big Eight accounting firm in the 1970s. Neville moves back and forth between the two stories, in alternating chapters, so that the novel itself is structured like a spiral or a figure 8.
The quest for the Montglane Service is played out as a chess game between opposing Black and White teams. In The Eight, it appears that the Black team represents the forces of good and the White team the forces of evil, since the heroes and heroines are on the Black team and the villains are on the White team. But in the sequel, The Fire, it turns out to be much more complicated, and people actually change sides (which is impossible in an actual chess game, of course). Mireille and Catherine are both the Black Queen in their own time. The chess game that Neville uses in the plot of The Eight was an actual game played in a world championship chess match, but she will not reveal which game she used. So far, I have been unable to guess which game it is.
Neville’s plot takes the characters to Algeria, New York, Paris during the Terror, Corsica, Russia, and London, among other places. The amazing list of characters includes, in Mireille's time, such famous historical figures as Talleyrand (who falls in love with Mireille), Catherine the Great, Napoleon, Marat (the evil White King in the Game), Charlotte Corday, Robespierre, and the painter Jacques-Louis David, as well as fictional characters such as the Abbess of Montglane, Mireille's young cousin Valentine, and Shahin, a mysterious man of the desert, who is Mireille's guide. In Catherine's time they include the handsome and mysterious Russian chess master Alexander Solarin, Catherine's reclusive mentor Ladislaus Nim, who is an expert on codes and encrypted messages and who lives in a fascinating house on Long Island, Catherine’s friend Lily, who (at first) thinks of nothing but chess and her noisy little dog Carioca, and Kamel Kader, an Algerian OPEC minister. Catherine is very much an autobiographical character. Besides being the author’s namesake (or nearly so: Catherine with a “C" vs. Katherine with a “K”), the character, like the author, is a computer expert working for the Algerian government in the 1970s. Both the author and the heroine are painters, as well. And both heroines, Catherine and Mireille, share a birth date with the author: April 4. That date is significant in the novel, since the digits add up to 8 and Neville describes it as an Islamic holy day, a day of healing.
The complex plot includes intellectual puzzles, ancient curses, mysticism, Freemasonry, alchemy, magic numbers, the relationship between mathematics and music, and the periodic table of the elements. It all builds up to a wonderful surprise ending, which has got to be one of the best I have ever read. But this brief summary can not begin to describe the fascination of The Eight. With elements of fantasy, mystery, and adventure, it does not really belong to any particular genre. In fact, I watched a recent video interview with Neville where she says bookstores have a hard time deciding where to put her books. Every time I read The Eight, I get more out of it, and I’m always discovering something new. The Eight is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year (2018). It was definitely the predecessor to such novels as The Da Vinci Code, but in my mind it is much better written, and The Da Vinci Code is not nearly as complex. Dan Brown’s characters seem like cardboard figures compared to Neville’s, in my opinion.
Finally, I would like to say something about my own history with The Eight. It was the first book I read after I graduated from library school, and I immediately fell in love with it. I had a horrible cold at the time, and like other books I’ve read when I was sick, it stuck in my mind. Since then, I’ve read it over and over again, so many times I’ve lost count. It’s been at least twenty times. Mireille, in particular, became my heroine. She’s courageous, highly intelligent, and she has an incredible ability to learn languages in a very short time. Catherine is a great heroine as well, with a mathematical mind and a great sense of humor. In the late 1990s, I set up a fan website about Katherine Neville and her books, especially The Eight. After a few years of inactivity, I’ve made it active again. Neville and I have corresponded about her books, and I met her at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor in 2008, when The Fire, the sequel to The Eight, was published. I highly recommend all her books, but The Eight is definitely my favorite.
The Eight is available from the Browsing Collection of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.
A review of The Fire will follow soon.