Picks and Pans Review: The Eight

updated 04/10/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Katherine Neville

With an alchemical skill, Neville blends a modern romance, historical fiction and a medieval mystery in this first novel and comes up with gold. The 'Eight' of the book's title is the lost formula for immortality, the elixir of life, which lies hidden in France within the pieces of a Moorish chess set once owned by Charlemagne. To prevent the misuse of its powerful secret, the set is dispersed during the French Revolution, but inevitably some of the pieces fall into the wrong hands. The quest to retrieve these pieces becomes an exuberant chess game—the White Queen and her evil allies against the Black Queen and the forces of good—played out across three continents and two centuries. The theme is on the hoary side, but Neville, in prose that is strikingly confident, has given it a lively new face; two new faces, actually. Both her heroines are beautiful, red-haired and indomitable.

Modern-day New Yorker Cat Velis is a computer expert who finds herself—by a series of accidents and coincidences that are neither accidental nor coincidental (remember, there are psychic forces at work here)—dodging oil barons and rug merchants in Algeria in her search for some of the missing chess pieces. Running parallel to Cat's story is the saga of the French novice, Mireille, a member of the order that once safeguarded the set, who in 1792 is undertaking the task of reassembling the chess pieces. The plausible reworking of history in the interests of invigorating the plot—Mireille befriends Napoleon and becomes the on-again, off-again mistress of the French statesman Talleyrand—makes for more than a few stretches of lively reading. Compared to Mireille's adventures, Cat's skirmishes in the modern world are on the tame side. Yet it is her dalliance with a Soviet chess master and her mathematician's flair for the codes and cryptograms buried within the book's pages that give this entertaining novel its wittiest and most anchored moments and bring the book to its satisfying conclusion. (Ballantine, $18.95)

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