When I first read the Wikipedia description of The Eight, recommended to me by my cousin Jen, I somehow got the impression that this was a young adult novel. When I got it, a very thick hardback of 550 pages, from the library, I realized otherwise.
I can’t say I particularly liked this book. I was – somewhat – entertained. At very least, after the first third of the book, I started wanting to pick it up in my idle time. In contrast with the last modern mystic thriller I read, this one was oversaturated with realism. I’m not real up on my history, and for that reason, I wouldn’t know if Neville was a history expert or was making half of the book’s history up. Either way, it didn’t matter, because the majority of what she put in there in the way of history didn’t matter one bit to the plotline. It felt more like she needed to touch every major player in politics just to show off, or to try to impress upon the reader how pervasive her made-up chess set is. Napoleon, Ben Franklin, Voltaire, Catherine the Great, etc, etc, not to mention the Freemasons, not to mention every Eastern religion that ever existed. Somehow it’s all connected, they’re all connected. And somehow, they all love chess, and are chessmasters. Actually, in this way (the all connected way), it reminded me of Forrest Gump and how Forrest has to be involved, in some way, with every event in history, down to the reporting of flashlights at the Watergate Hotel, and giving John Lennon the idea for “Imagine.”
So anyway, the history aspect of the book was well-crafted (at least from a total history ignoramous’s point of view), but not believable (for me). The characters were flat and didn’t seem to have real personalities. There were a couple of token scenes of passionate love, a couple super-intense scenes of battles that the good guys manage to survive against all odds, and a whole lot of babble about science, music, and alchemy that really didn’t tie anything together too well. And then, every single character the reader meets is somehow involved in this fanatical search for the Montglane Service. And really, if all these people are after it, how is it that the main characters don’t even know what it is at the beginning? It’s supposed to be a secret. All way too convenient.
And then, there’s the obvious thing – if this chess set is so dangerous, why don’t they just destroy it? For goodness sake!! But no, that solution is too obvious.
At the beginning, I tried to get all the characters straight, and the history and everything, but about 100 pages in, I gave up. What was the point? My knowledge didn’t matter one bit, this wasn’t a mystery I would be able to unravel. The only mysteries I could unravel were the ones that were too easy. For example, a woman who just took a lover for the first time gets violently ill a month later. She continues to be ill for at least another month – What was going on?? Surely, it was the water in one of the passing towns that made her ill. Hmm…
And speaking of the rhetorical question up there, I have to make a note of something that really held me back from enjoying the book: it is trapped in 80s style. Everything, everything, in this book is 80s. The way the people act, the way they dress (despite not being about the 80s), the way the author riddles her book with “What was going on?”s, the token sex scenes, the heightened sense of uberfeminism, the prejudices of the time, the dry but prolific prose, and so on. Reading the book was an amazing experience in time travel, though unfortunately not to the time periods Neville intended to write about.
In the end, I’d have to say my conclusion is that this is not a deep-thinking book. It’s fairly enjoyable once you get past the first bit where there’s so much textbook instruction that it’s hard to concentrate, and only enjoyable if you can see beyond its stuck-in-time qualities and don’t care if your characters and plot are a little unrealistic. There’s nothing terribly good to recommend it, and it’s not even super-fast like the thrillers on the market today, so unless you’re a really big chess buff, you might skip this and pick up something a little less archaic.
Oh, and regarding my last review on mystical thrillers, this book wasn’t exactly what I was searching for either. I think I’m looking for a book steeped in mysticism and religion that is (for the most part, at least) relative to the characters rather than one that relies on history or any real events, something that is enclosed rather than archetypal. This one was pretty archetypal and it certainly had fingers in everything major, from Russian monarchy to OPEC to the Reign of Terror to Orthodox Jews. Yeah.