The Fire: A Novel

The Fire - Katherine Neville Synopsis:The Fire is actually a sequel to Katherine Neville’s The Eight published some twenty years ago and reviewed by me last year. The Fire, like The Eight, follows two timelines, one past (in this case 1822) and one present (2003).Alexandra Solarin (Xie) was twelve years old in the autumn of 1993. She was being accompanied by her father, Aleksandr Solarin on a chess tournament in Zagorsk Monastery, Russia. This young chess prodigy was to play against a similarly young boy from Ukraine named Vartan Azov in the very final game of the tournament. Shortly before the game, the girl bumped into a local woman who – without Alexandra realizing it – slipped a cardboard placard into her pocket; a symbol that bore “a small illustration of a flying bird set inside an Islamic eight-pointed star, and three words printed in Russian…” that meant “Beware the Fire”. Later in the monastery, Aleksandr saw a sculpture known as “The Black Queen”. Sensing danger, Aleksandr fled the tournament with his daughter to find the woman who slipped the cardboard with the symbol earlier, but as soon as he spotted her, Aleksandr was shot in front of his young daughter.Ten years later, with the sudden and mysterious disappearance of her mother, Cat Velis, Alexandra realizes that the Game in search of the scattered chess pieces has evidently started again… As Alexandra reunites with her arch nemesis, Vartan Azov, they must join forces on an adventure to solve the puzzle and save their lives. The second thread of the plot takes place in the 19th century Albania. Haidee, the young daughter of a powerful Ottoman ruler, embarks on a dangerous mission – she has to smuggle a valuable relic out of her native country and deliver it safely into the hands of a stranger. Still she and her companion, Kauri, are captured by pirates and sold at a marked in Fez. Will they be able to fulfill their mission?What I liked:Katherine Neville’s The Eight was a good novel and for more than one reason: the narration was convoluted without being incomprehensible, it jumped in time and space still remaining logical and fun, the author used different alchemical elements and ideas and tied them up with the plot in an ingenious manner. As soon as I was able to get the sequel I decided to read it but I admit that my expectations were high. Perhaps too high…you know the curse of the sequels: somehow they are rarely as good as the first parts. This sequel, additionally, can hardly be called a stand-alone.In structure and elements, The Fire has much in common with The Eight: characters in each period are playing a high-stakes game related to a chess set that once belonged to Charlemagne. At the end of the first novel, the players learned that the board and pieces contained the formula for the elixir of life; here it's discovered that the board may hold more abstract information about natural order and balance -- the Big Picture, it's called at one point, the Original Instructions at others. Whatever it is, it still seems worth killing for.Overall if you haven’t read The Eight, then I highly suggest you read it first. Otherwise, you’ll get its magical story distilled in a few paragraphs of dry summary, and by only reading The Fire you’ll probably think “The Game” is pretty pointless as well – somehow Neville never manages or bothers to demonstrate what’s actually at stake, or even introduce any real drama or urgency to Alexandra’s quest (Haidee’s story is woefully relegated to serious back burner status). The story brings you on a journey throughout the Middle East and it is jam-packed with historical references – on the Ottoman empire, Lord Byron, Napoleon, chess strategies, the Basques, the Mages the Sufism and more. It was nice. Still it was less dazzling than the first part, reminding me slightly (ONLY slightly) of The Da Vinci Code with the break-neck adventures and puzzle-solving frenzy. What I didn’t like: I despised the predictability of that one. The villains never dared to hurt any of the positive characters in a permanent manner and you KNEW they wouldn't dare perhaps because they were as cardboard-thin as it is only possible; the romantic interest of Alexandra could be spotted from a mile off and the romance itself was far more schematic that in the first part. There was less chess more running around and looking for clues, Dan Brown style. Part of the interest here was the way that Neville layers and repeats motifs. For example, in the book's historical narrative - set in the 1820s - another party of eight gathers to discuss the game, including Napoleon's mother, Letizia Bonaparte, and Lord Byron. But if the plot is a giant chess game, it's odd that none of the pieces gets taken; in both the historic narrative and the modern one, the characters just shuffle around the board spaces, staring menacingly before moving on. There is a lot of talk about the white team and the black team but the one person who emerges as a “villain” cannot even be taken seriously. And Xie's chess blindness seems a permanent affliction, since she rarely seems to know what's going on. Don’t get me wrong, Alexandra is a sympathetic character but she’s never proactive – she merely reacts to situations during the entire book and tries do defend herself. Perhaps this had something to do with her favorite chess strategy – The King Indian Defense – but practically, it was highly frustrating.Final verdict: Neville has certainly done her research, and if you like conspiracy theories, complex riddles, and the fictional integration of real historical personalities like Lord Byron and Thomas Jefferson, then this might be up your alley. For me though, it was a bit too repetitive and schematic. Much of the background information sounded as dry and impersonal as a Wikipedia entry, and the characters delivering it were often pretty lifeless. I don’t regret reading it but I was hardly swept away by it.