Monday, October 06, 2008

56. The Fire

by Katherine Neville

I believe I received this advance reader’s edition of The Fire from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program because my LibraryThing library includes The Eight, Neville’s predecessor to The Fire. The Eight was originally published 20 years ago and at the time was quite unique – a sort of historical fiction/mystery/suspense/thriller interlaced with legend and was hard to classify by genre. Since then there have been similar books: The Da Vinci Code (which I hated) and the like.

I read The Eight with my book club in 2002. I don’t remember a lot of the details, and I didn’t review it, but I gave it four stars. I thought about re-reading The Eight before reading The Fire, but neither my university library nor my local county library had a copy, and there wasn’t time to do an interlibrary loan. In retrospect, I think it would have helped to re-read it. While The Fire can stand alone, there are parts that might make more sense with a fresh knowledge of The Eight. In particular, The Fire seems to assume that the reader knows all about “The Game” from The Eight and provides little explanation of it. It might also help to know more about the real game of chess—I know very little.

Structured like The Eight, the intertwining stories in The Fire take place in 1822 and 2003, approximately 22-32 years after the events in The Eight. I found the story set in the past to be weak and unbelievable. The two main characters in it are supposedly the offspring of Lord Byron and Talleyrand respectively. Other figures from history, such as Jefferson, Careme, and Ali Pasha, make improbable appearances. They and others often tell long “tales” in both the modern and historical stories that allow the author to insert a lot of her research detail, but are a poor substitute for plot action or real dialogue.

Indeed, at 435 pages, the book has way too much unnecessary detail. Besides alchemy and puzzles, in her acknowledgements, the author lists these other research topics: Albania, aviation, Aleutians, Baghdad, Basques, chess, cooking, Indians/Native Americans, Islam, Middle East, Far East, mathematics, mythology, archetypes, memory and perception, Russia, volcanoes and geysers, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Poplar Forest, the U.S. Capitol, esoteric architecture, astrology, Freemasonry, the design of Washington DC, and Dumbarton Oaks. It felt like the book was written to fit in all the research, not the other way around.

Alex, the narrator and main character of the 2003 segments, aka Xie, daughter of two of the main characters in The Eight, was passive and reactive. She can quickly solve anagrams and other puzzles, but that's about it. There are too many other characters and none of them are well-developed either. The end of the book is disappointing; we’re left hanging with many of these characters with no idea what has happened to them. I hope this does not portend yet another sequel incorporating yet more unlikely involvement of real historical personages. I doubt it would be worth another 20-year wait.

2 comments:

  1. It's been ages since I received an Early Reviewers book! And I haven't forgotten that you want Becky. I'll probably have to send it to you, since I may end up not being able to attend TLA, even though it will be in Houston. I'll more than likely be going to Computers in Libraries, which overlaps TLA. I'll be back in town before it's over, but I don't know that I'll get to go...

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  2. I'm 2/3 of the way through the book (which I also received as an Early Reviewer) and I couldn't agree more. Disappointing, at best.

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