Numbers : 8 …a lucky number in Chinese and the dimensions of a chess board are 8 by 8.
As the chess piece on the cover might suggest, this story revolves around chess. In fact there are two stories separated in time, yet somehow connected, like in Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, one story is set in the immediate aftermath of the French revolution, the other in the seventies at the time of the OPEC conference.
It can be a little jarring to flit from one story to the other, the reader invests in one and then has to follow another different story. In the late eighteenth century we have Mireille and her cousin Valentine, novices in the Montglane Convent in the South of France. Where a fabled chess set, a present by some Moors to Charlemagne lays hidden. The chess set supposedly has the clues to a secret formula of immense power linked to the realms of mathematics and music and chess. The Abbess fearing the Terror sweeping France would engulf the convent sends out her nuns and novices with pieces of the chess set. Mireille and Valentine are sent to Paris to the care of the painter and opportunist Jacques-Louis David.
Alternating with the cousins’ story are the present-day efforts of a U.S. computer expert, Cat Velis and Solarin, a Russian chess master to assemble the set and solve its mystery. Studying the code involves musical notation, chess strategy, Fibonacci numbers, and mysticism.
The late eighteenth century part feels like a who’s who of important personages of the time. There are the revolutionaries like Robespierre and Marat, along with the painter David, a young Napoleon, the czarina Catherine the Great and walk on cameos for the poet double bill of Blake and Wordsworth (double bill, both Williams, geddit?) Marat’s murder immortalised in David’s painting is but one of many historic events incorporated into the plot.
Most chess players it would seem are teetering on the brink of madness. “Madness is the occupational hazard of chess“, remarks Lily, Cat’s friend and a skilful chess player in her own right, despite being a woman. Lily continues “chess…is such an Oedipal game. Kill the King and fuck the Queen, that’s what it is all about. Psychologists love to follow chess players about to see if they wash their hands too much, sniff at old sneakers, or masturbate between sessions. Then write it all up in the Journal of the AMA.”
The action moves across continents and across the centuries. From France to Algiers from New York to Corsica and Montglane to St Petersburg. There are rather too many coincidences for the story to be completely plausible and driving a Rolls Corniche into the desert is sure to end in tears (should have taken a Toyota Land Cruiser). The book is a lengthy 598 pages, and one of the characters asks “when does the Game ever end?” The humans involved are likened to pieces in the game, particularly as the novel reaches its “End Game” and the number eight in many forms is continually recurring, for example; in an Algerian labyrinth and in the processions in Venice.
Like The Romanov Prophecy this bears comparison to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code for its action and symbolism. First published in 1989 it pre-dates Dan Brown.
My rating 4 out of 5