Katherine Neville is one of those people that does everything well. She’s been a model, a computer wiz, a photographer, and she’s also an impressive author. I was lucky enough to read this first in the series since Open Road Integrated Media has just re- published it digitally. Thank you to them, and to Net Galley, for permitting me a free copy in exchange for my review. This book was released Tuesday, and is for sale now.
Our protagonist, Cat Velis, lives in New York; the time is 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War. Cat lives in New York City and works for Con Edison. Since she has refused to do something illegal for her boss, who is engaged in some sidelines back-scratching with a client, she is being shipped off to Algeria. Before she can pack, however, a fortune teller warns her that she is in great danger. She scoffs, but less than a week and two corpses later, her irritation has turned to fear. She calls in her mentor, a mysterious man that seems to travel Gandalf-like, practically appearing in thin air. He comes and talks to her in much the same way as the fortune teller did, but he also tells her that she has to go to Algeria and fulfill her destiny.
Transposed with this story is a tale that takes place around the time of the French Revolution. The Montglane Abbey is closing its doors because of the Bill of Seizure. Buried beneath its floor for centuries was a legendary chess set whose worth is beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Composed of huge gems, gold, and silver, it is all the more valuable for a formula that its individual parts, when put together, have etched on their undersides. Is it a secret weapon? Is it a supernatural curse that is activated when the pieces are together? The Abbess only knows that she must separate the pieces and get them out of France, along with herself. She takes herself to Russia, to her closest friend, who is Catherine the Great. From there, the parallel story to Cat’s unfurls itself. Eventually the two part of the story come together.
Here’s a clip of the author discussing her novel, and the life experiences that shaped it:
This is ordinarily not the sort of historical fiction that attracts me; there are really well-developed, highly sympathetic royal characters, and then there are the savage, dirty masses. It grates. While it’s true that the French working class and peasantry really did tear royals from their splendid carriages and either kill them on the spot or take them off to the Jacobins to be killed later, Neville paints the royals in such an idealized fashion that the reader, if not already informed, might wonder indeed just why the masses would do such a thing? Unless, of course, it’s in their inferior DNA. I ground my teeth and read on.
Add a reference to the Freemasons and the number 666, and I was ready to hurl my kindle across the room! But I had an obligation to the publisher, and so I persevered, and I am glad I did, because what Neville does with the plot is quite cunning. If one were going to chart the book into a grid, it would correlate with the grid that is part of the story itself. And if this makes no sense whatsoever to you, all I can tell you is that you have to read the book and watch closely. Watch for the patterns; this is actually slick as hell! And so in the end, I was glad I had seen it through. Though maybe more famous people are worked into one novel than is natural, the elegance of the plot itself (and the chess detail), rather than historical veracity or character development, is what sustains this substantial work.
The reader’s understanding of this hyper-literate story will be aided by knowledge of chess. In fact, I found myself taking a few notes, though I haven’t played in years! Those unschooled in chess can also enjoy the book, but I do not recommend this book to anyone for whom English is not the mother tongue. The vocabulary and historical references will be so much work for you that you won’t enjoy it.
But I did.
Recommended to those that appreciate symmetry and precision in a novel.