I don’t remember where I heard about Katherine Neville, but she was on my list of authors to try someday, so a couple weeks ago I checked out The Eight from the library. On the cover there is a quote comparing the book to The Da Vinci Code, and indeed it has some similarities, but it is also quite different. The similarities are primarily that they are both puzzle-based thrillers, involving some historical/mystical object about which knowledge has been passed down through a secret society. However, the style and approach to the topic are different. For example, The Da Vinci Code takes place over a period of 24 hours, while The Eight spans two different centuries and many months. I do not think it is worth comparing the two further; they both have their merits and demerits, so I will focus on The Eight for the rest of this review.
Overall, I enjoyed The Eight, although I found some aspects lacking. The plot centers around the game of chess, and specifically focuses on a long-hidden Moorish chess set from the 700s, which is said to contain hidden in it a powerful formula. The action switches between two young women: Mireille, living in France during the revolution, and Catherine, living in New York City in the 1970s. At times the book was action-oriented and fast-moving (the usual thriller elements such as car-chases, murders, etc.), while at other times it was slower and more descriptive. I enjoyed both parts and overall the writing generally kept me engaged and captivated, and sometimes on edge.
The plot was fairly complicated and contained a significant amount of build-up about the formula in the chess set. In general, the hints indicated that it was some sort of scientific formula and I had high hopes for some complicated science or math showing up. In the end, the relevant science and math concepts appeared only in the most general terms, and the formula was not something that is known to exist in reality. I suppose that was necessary, since it was hinted several times that knowledge of the formula led to great power, so if it were something that really existed, then the reader would be left wondering why the formula is not as powerful in real life as it was indicated to be in the novel. However, it was still a bit disappointing because the ending was not really believable. Granted, I don’t think this type of book is meant to be believable in the strictest sense. There were certainly other elements that were less than believable; for example all the seemingly coincidental connections between people. For the most part, this did not detract from my enjoyment of the book.
Another aspect that I think could have been done better was the connection between the “game” that the people were in and a chess game. It was stated or implied at various points that the people were in some sense “pieces” in a chess game, but Neville did not flesh out the analogy as much as I would have liked; she talked about the people making “moves” (killing off pawns, for example), but the correspondence to chess was not often that clear-cut. She may have been inspired by Through the Looking Glass (there were some quotes from it at the start of chapters), in which Alice is very explicitly part of a chess game, but I enjoyed the more explicit people-chess game analogies in that book than in this one.
Finally, one more nit-picking aspect that I was disppointed by: the main character in the 1970s part, Catherine, is supposed to be a computer expert, but this didn’t actually turn out to be critical to her solving any puzzles in the way I hoped it would be. In fact, the puzzles in general were much more vague than in, for example, The Da Vinci Code. Perhaps this aspect particularly disappointed me because I am a computer scientist myself (and enjoy puzzles), and because the character was female and I was hoping she would more explicitly defy stereotypes in some way.
Reading over this review, I realize that it is focused on the things I disliked about The Eight. I do want to be clear that, despite these less-than-perfect aspects, while I was reading the book I thoroughly enjoyed it, and had trouble putting it down at times. The plot is overall quite well-done, given its complexity. I enjoyed the way in which there were two different time periods, with connections between the events in each of them, and I felt that this aspect was well fleshed-out. I suspect that I will probably read more books by Katherine Neville in the future.