Friday, November 7, 2008

Katherine Neville "The Fire"

Nov. 7, 2008 BOOK REVIEW: 'The Fire': A Powerful Sequel to Katherine Neville's Genre-Twisting 'The Eight' By David M. Kinchen Book Critic Twenty years is a long time for Katherine Neville's fans to wait for a sequel to her genre-bending historical thriller "The Eight," but her devotees will find that "The Fire" (Ballantine Books, $26, 464 pages) was worth the wait. When "The Eight" was published in 1988, it combined elements of romance novels, historical novels and thrillers -- long before Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" (2003) and Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian." (2005). It was part of Ballantine's entry into hard-cover books by an imprint -- owned by the world's largest publisher, the Random House group -- that had long been noted for publishing mass-market paperbacks. With a massive first printing and a main selection of the Book of the Month Club, "The Fire" is review proof. The only thing that could hold back sales of this novel is the recession, but fans of this genre are a loyal bunch, so I predict a top position on all the bestseller charts. It was No. 12 on the New York Times Nov. 2 fiction list. The world-wide chess game that was the centerpiece in "The Eight" has started in "The Fire" as Alexandra "Xie" Solarin, a now grown-up child chess prodigy, is invited to her mother's birthday party in a remote Colorado lodge in the Four Corners area where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah converge. It's the spring of 2003 and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq is underway. Ancient Mesopotamia -- today's Iraq -- was where the legendary Montglane Service chess set was made almost 1,500 years ago, so the timing is crucial. Cat's birthday, April 4, is the direct opposite of Xie's Oct. 4 birthday and it's been almost 10 years since Xie's father, Alexander Solarin, has been slain at a chess tournament in Russia. One of her opponents at the tournament shows up at the party, along with other unlikely -- to Xie -- guests. Xie blames the opponent, Vartan Azov, a handsome twenty-something Ukrainian, for the tragic events at the tournament held in the autumn of 1993 in the remote Russian monastery of Zagorsk. Cat Velis, who's been estranged from Xie for at least five years, doesn't appear at her own party and the game is afoot, as Arthur Conan Doyle would have written. I'm not going to divulge the twists and turns of the plot, but it hinges on Xie finding Cat Velis and the remaining pieces of the Montglane Service that have been scattered around the world. Among the historical figures in the novel are Thomas Jefferson, his friend (and possible lover) in 18th Century Paris, English painter Maria Cosway; Talleyrand, the ultimate French survivor; Napoleon's sister; Charlemagne; Lord Byron and his friend and fellow poet Percy Shelley, and many more -- along with dozens of eccentric characters created by Neville. One of the most intriguing figures in "The Fire" is a Basque restaurant owner named "Rodo" Boujaron, who employs Xie as a sous chef at his open hearth restaurant, Sutalde (the Hearth) in the Georgetown district of Washington, DC. He's a perfectionist who treats his employees like slaves, but they seem to love it. Another is Xie's friend since she was a child, Nokomis Key, a geothermal scientist and bush pilot who has Francis Scott Key, the composer of the national anthem, as one of her ancestors, along with American Indian roots. Nokomis is named after a character in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem "The Song of Hiawatha": By the shores of Gitchie Gumme,By the shining Big-Sea-Water,Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.Dark behind it rose the forest,Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,Rose the firs with cones upon them;Bright before it beat the water,Beat the clear and sunny water,Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water. Although Neville provides plenty of help deciphering the puzzles and mythological references -- as well as heaping quantities of numerology -- in headnotes and in the narrative of "The Fire," I found my well-thumbed copy of Hans Biedermann's "Dictionary of Symbolism" helpful as I read the novel. Each chapter ends with a "ka-ching" surprise, which could be off-putting to some readers. But formulaic writing didn't affect the sales of books by Michael Crichton ("The Andromeda Strain," "Jurassic Park," "State of Fear" and many more techno thrillers) who just died at the age of 66, and I don't think it will hurt the sales of "The Fire." I read the book as a guilty pleasure and enjoyed it immensely. About the Author: Born in the Midwest in 1945, Neville is the author of "A Calculated Risk," and "The Magic Circle," in addition to "The Eight" and "The Fire." She has been an international computer consultant, a vice president of the Bank of America, a restaurant wait person, a model and a commercial photographer -- all careers that have contributed to her writing. She lives in Washington, DC, and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Publisher's web site:
Yeah, 20 years was a hell of a long time to wait for a sequel, but it took me that long to learn and grow in knowledge in symbolism and feminine mythologies to the point where I am now savoring nearly every word in "The Fire" as one would savor a wine that comes along once in a thousand years.

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