My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Twenty years ago, Katherine Neville published her first novel, the acclaimed The Eight. The raves encouraged me to read that book, and, sad to say, I was underwhelmed. Now Neville has published its sequel, The Fire, featuring Alexandra Solarin, daughter of her first protagonist. The game of chess figures prominently in both works; perhaps not coincidentally, both books proceed at the pace of a chess match.
In this go-round, Xie (Alexandra’s nickname, pronounced “Zee”) must discover why her mother has suddenly disappeared. It has something to do with an ancient, esoteric set of chess pieces, and why her mother didn’t simply fill her in on the details, I can’t say. The novel has two focal points. The first, of course, is Xie’s quest. The other consists of a series of flashbacks detailing the history of the mysterious, extremely valuable chess pieces, for which generations of players have been willing to plot and murder. What is missing in The Fire> is drama. Reading this saga is rather like attending a series of lectures, which encompass mythology, legend, history, and lore. There is the obligatory, passionate romance between Xie and her former nemesis, also a chess prodigy. There is the pitting of two ancient family dynasties. There is the spurious appearance of Lord Byron, as one of the progenitors of “the secret.” And there is the denouement in which Xie barely escapes with her life, along the way learning who she can trust.
When all is said and done, The Fire falls flat. By the end, I didn’t care whether Xie reunited the chess set and saved the world or not. What mattered to her was that she and her lover personified “the key to the secret way”.