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10 / 30 books. 33% done!

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Ancient Chess Set Mystery A Slow, Slow Slog

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's 1792 in France, a country boiling over with political turmoil, just one step away from total anarchy.  With the bankrupt State seizing Church property, the nun in charge of Montglane Abbey is in a panic.  Having vowed to protect the priceless treasure hidden in the walls of her cloistered home, the abbess must do everything she can to ensure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands.  Few understand how potent is the power contained in the Montglane Service, a chess set—exquisitely crafted and jeweled—that belonged to Charlemagne.  Individually, the pieces are stunning enough, but when possessed as a complete set they are more mighty than God Himself.  In the wrong hands, they could bring death and destruction to every corner of the Earth.  Entrusting portions of the set to eight different nuns, she urges the women to scatter, to protect their cargo with their lives.  

Fifteen-year-old Valentine and her cousin Mirielle flee to Paris with two of the pieces.  In the care of their godfather, the girls find themselves in the heart of enemy territory.  With danger around every bend, they can never let their guard down.  As Paris grows more turbulent by the day, Valentine and Mirielle have to keep their chess pieces safe, even if it means losing everything else that matters to them.  Which it just might.

Fast forward almost 200 years.  Catherine Velis, a 23-year-old computer expert, is spending the last day of 1972 worried about her fate.  Having crossed her boss, the CEO of a prominent New York City auditing firm, she's concerned that she's flushed her young career down the toilet.  When she discovers she's being shipped off to Algiers for a year to consult with an obscure operation called OPEC, she's not thrilled.  Her antique dealer family friend, however, is delighted.  He begs her to hunt down pieces of a dusty chess set that are rumored to be in Algeria.  Not long after Catherine hears about the Montglane Service, very strange things start happening to her.  Before she knows it, she's in North Africa hunting down a mythical chess set, being chased by very real enemies.  What has she gotten herself into?  Smack dab in the middle of an ancient Game she is only beginning to understand, Catherine wants only one thing—to win.  Is doing so even possible?  Is it worth it, especially if it costs her her life?  

Alternating between 1792 and 1973, The Eight by Katherine Neville tells a The Da Vinci Code-like story full of history, adventure and intrigue.  First published in 1988, the popular novel has recently become available as an e-book for the first time ever.  I had never heard of Neville, but the premise behind The Eight sounded fascinating, so I accepted an e-book to review.  Unfortunately, I didn't check the book's page (or screen) count before agreeing to read it—the paper version weighs in at 624 pages!  It's a chunkster, which doesn't usually bother me as long as the story can maintain my interest for that long.  In the case of The Eight, that just didn't happen.  While there's plenty of action woven through the book, I still found myself bored with it.  Part of my frustration had to do with sheer length—the story is epic in scope, yes, but it could have been shortened by at least 300 pages, thus tightening its structure and making it a more compelling read.  Neville's prose doesn't help, as it has a dull, tell-not-show quality to it.  The plot seems far-fetched, contrived and too loosey-goosey.  Then there are the characters, who are mostly flat and unlikable.  It's difficult to empathize with greedy, self-centered story people.  So, yeah.  I had quite a time slogging through this lengthy tome.  It took a week to conquer—unheard of for me.  I'm sorry to say it, but in the end, The Eight just was not worth the time I invested in it.  Bummer, since I still find the idea of the Montglane Service so very compelling.  (Just for the record, it doesn't actually exist, although the idea of it is based on the Charlemagne chess set associated with the Saint Denis Abbey that is now housed in France's Bibliotheque Nationale.)    

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of The Da Vinci Code and other books by Dan Brown)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, sexual content, and references to illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished e-copy of The Eight from the generous folks at Open Road Media.  Thank you!
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