The Fire by Katherine Neville

Cover of The Fire by Katherine Neville

Cover of The Fire by Katherine Neville.

The Fire is the sequel to one of my favorite novels of all time, Katherine Neville’s The Eight (see my previous review).  In The Eight, Katherine Neville introduced us to the Montglane Service, a chess set which once belonged to Charlemagne and which holds a deadly secret, and to the dangerous Game with real people as pawns and pieces, played to obtain the chess set and solve its mysteries.  The Fire takes place thirty years after The Eight, and the heroine is Alexandra Solarin, daughter of Catherine Velis, heroine of The Eight.  Alexandra is a former chess prodigy who saw her father, the Russian grand master Alexander Solarin, murdered at a tournament in Russia ten years ago.  Her mother has forbidden her to play chess ever since.

At the beginning of The Fire, Alexandra works as an apprentice chef in a Basque restaurant in Washington, D.C., a job which her favorite uncle, the reclusive cryptographer Ladislaus Nim, has obtained for her.  Neville’s descriptions of the meals at the restaurant are mouthwatering.  On April 4, 2003, Alexandra receives an invitation to her mother’s birthday party at the family ranch in Colorado, which she finds strange because her mother has never told anyone except a few people when her birthday is, much less given a birthday party.  (As readers of The Eight will remember, April 4 is the birthday of the Black Queen in the Game, and that has been Catherine’s role for all these years.)  When she arrives at the ranch, Alexandra finds that her mother has disappeared and a strange assortment of guests have turned up.  One of the first is Alexandra’s “aunt” Lily Rad, Catherine’s best friend from The Eight, who has become a glamorous chess master.  Then we meet Alexandra’s own best friend, the charismatic pilot Nokomis Key.  Catherine’s filthy-rich neighbors Basil and Rosemary Livingston and their obnoxious daughter Sage arrive with their mysterious neighbor Galen March.  Accompanying Lily is the last person Alexandra ever wanted to see: the Ukrainian chess master Vartan Azov, her opponent in that last chess game where her father was killed.  Catherine has left behind a string of clues, including a chessboard set up with that last game.  When Alexandra and Lily decipher the clues, Alexandra realizes that the Game that killed her father has begun again, and that she herself is in great danger.  But who is on her side, and who is working against her?  As she searches for her mother, Alexandra is not sure which of these people she can trust.

As in The Eight, a historical plot is intertwined with the contemporary plot, even though, in The Fire, the historical part is much shorter than the contemporary.  In The Eight, they are roughly equal in length.  In Albania in 1822, Ali Pasha and his supporters are under siege by the sultan’s army.  He entrusts his adopted daughter Haidée with a dangerous mission: to find her real father, Lord Byron, and give him the Black Queen from the Montglane Service.  But before they can find Byron, Haidée and her escort, the Tuareg boy Kauri, are captured by pirates.  Kauri escapes, but Haidée is taken to the sultan’s harem in Morocco.  In the mountains of Morocco, Charlot de Remy, the son of Mireille, the heroine of The Eight’s historical plot, and his guardian Shahin, Kauri’s father, try to find Haidée before she is sold into slavery.  They succeed, but Charlot discovers that Haidée mysteriously blocks his powers of prophecy.  Also, he realizes that there are two Black Queens: the one Haidée was given and the one he thought was safely buried.  Which Black Queen is the real one and which the copy?  Charlot’s and Haidée’s quest takes them to Rome and Grenoble, before they can at last solve the mystery of the Montglane Service.  Along the way, we meet many famous historical figures, including Talleyrand (Charlot’s father), Thomas Jefferson, the painter Maria Cosway, and Napoleon’s mother, all of whom are involved in the Game.

When I read The Fire for the first time, I felt like I was meeting old friends, and I was glad to see Nim, one of my favorite characters from The Eight, play an important role.  The new characters are all great additions to the story.  The contemporary story receives more attention than the historical one, and it was very clever of Neville to include references to 9-11 and the Iraq War and make them part of the plot.  As we find out, the Montglane Service originated in Baghdad.  In The Fire, we learn much more of the history of the Montglane Service as well as its deeper meaning.  The Fire did leave me with many questions, though, which even after my third reading, I have not been able to answer.  It is not always easy to keep track of the Black Queen (the piece which plays the most important role in The Fire) and all the places where it’s been over the years, because it changes hands so many times.

In The Eight, it was clear who was on the Black team and who was on the White team.  Generally speaking, the heroes and heroines were on the Black team and the villains were on the White team.  But in The Fire it is much more complicated, and some characters appear to change sides.  The message seems to be that the two teams need to work together, or the mystery of the Montglane Service will never truly be solved.  But it is hard to tell sometimes which character is on which team, even in the case of the heroine, Alexandra.  She appears to be on the White team through most of the book, but then you learn she may have taken her mother’s place as the Black Queen.  In The Eight, Charlot and Shahin appeared to be on the Black Team, but in The Fire you find out Charlot is the White King and Shahin is on his team.  I hope there will be a third volume in the series that will answer the questions left over from The Fire.  I enjoyed The Fire very much, but not quite as much as The Eight.  Since The Eight is one of my favorite novels of all time, that’s not saying much.  This is the third time I’ve read The Fire, and I get more enjoyment out of it with every reading.

The Fire is available from the Browsing Collection at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.