By Katherine Neville.
598 pages
New York: Ballantine Books, 1988
ISBN: 0-345-41908-1

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2003

THE EIGHT is a very long and extremely complex novel. Structurally we are told two parallel stories, one in the years 1790-1799 with a last leap up to 1830; the other story takes place in 1972-73. The two stories are a series of alternating chapters, perhaps a dozen or more.

The mixed-times of these related stories is only the merest tip of this ice-berg of complexity. Both stories are of the search for the legendary Montglance Service, a chess set and board supposedly presented to Charlemagne in the 10th century by North African Arabs. This service, the symbols embedded in the pieces and the board itself are believe to contain some astonishing secret leading to unimagined power. Both forces of good and evil – the black and white pieces respectively – in both centuries of the novel, seek not only the physical service itself (the pieces and board) but the key to unlocking this secret power.

Neville tells the story well. It flows, is extremely exciting, each chapter driving one forward to the next. I was 598 pages into this 599 paged tale when I finally thought I had figured out the meaning of the service and the ending of the book. The author didn’t give much away.

While I delighted in the tale and read with speed and excitement, I was often upset with both the novelist and myself. Upset with myself because I normally read books with more seriousness of purpose and higher literary values. Neville forced me to realize a certain fickle side of myself that allows me to get swept up in rapt attention to a story that was hardly more than a sophisticated Hardy boys tale or Harry Potter for adults. That’s not meant to be a criticism of Katherine Neville, but of myself. I have come to want to discipline myself, in the face of the realization that I live among so many books and there is so little time, to read books of a more serious intellectual and literary purpose. I’m just a sucker for a great adventure.

The complex story, dealing with a secret of great world power is itself a gigantic historical chess match. The black side, we eventually learn, is the good folks; the white side the evil folks who would likely use this power in evil ways.

The story has several features which often drew me up to ask – “oh come on Corbett, why are you reading this?” Despite my very justified outbursts, Neville had the power of wielding her adventure-historical mystery in such a way that drew me back in after the outburst had settled down. Some of the features I found troubling were:

I stumbled upon this novel while waiting for one of my son’s who was shopping in a thrift store. Beneath the title the cover says: “The female counterpart to Umberto Eco’s THE NAME OF THE ROSE.”

It is certainly not Katherine Neville’s fault that the publisher and marketers of this novel so grossly mislead me. Whatever this book is, it does not bear comparison with Umberto Eco in the slightest.

Despite the criticisms and disparaging words, I had a great deal of fun reading the novel. The story-line is extremely complex, a marvelous logical puzzle, and exciting and satisfying action/adventure/historical mystery. My problems are much more with the genre of the novel itself and my own “weakness” (as I view it) for that genre.

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett