Neville’s debut novel is a humdinger. It is two parallel stories, one taking place in the middle of European upheaval around the French Revolution in 1790, and the other in 1972. Neville’s book is a dramatic tour de force, not only crisscrossing the globe and weaving in sophisticated themes on virtually every subject from religion, philosophy, mathematics, music, astronomy, architecture, game theory, economics, the politics of war, and much more, but also sprawling across multiple genres of writing, including historical fiction, romance, thriller/adventure, and fantasy. Her characters, apart from a handful of main protagonists, are drawn from every realm and age as well, including Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Robespierre, Talleyrand, Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Benedict Arnold, Johann Sebastian Bach, Leonhard Euler, William Blake, even modern heads of state Muammar Qaddafi and Houari Boumediene.
Her modern story centers around Catherine (“Cat”) Velis, a brilliant young computer specialist working in NYC who gets swept up into a global hunt for the mysterious Montglane Service, a fabulous chess set hidden for many centuries, which supposedly carries the code, or formula, for immense power. How she gets chosen by strange and unknown forces into taking up the search—her birthdate and the mystical figure eight into which her left hand’s lifeline falls—is as contrived as the unlikely characters she gets thrown together with, and unfortunately, despite her repeated near-death adventures and general spunkiness, this half of the novel is Neville’s weakest, by far.
But, oh my, the historical portion of her novel had me mesmerized. Two teenage cousins, sent as orphans into France’s distant Montglane Abbey, are abruptly deployed into Paris by the wily Abbess when she learns that church lands and properties are about to be seized by the French revolutionaries. The Abbess has been charged, as have her predecessors through the ages, with protecting the Montglane Service which was buried within the walls of the Abbey, and terrified of allowing its power to fall into the hands of “evil forces,” she scatters its pieces with her nuns when she sends them home and closes the Abbey. The cousins Valentine and Mireille take eight of the pieces with them to Paris, and become a collection point for any of the other pieces that might come under threat of capture. And here the story begins.
Neville adopts an effective technique, modeled on that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, of filling in a great deal of the history and significance of the Montglane Service through individual “tales” told by many of the historical figures that are scattered throughout her novel. She has done her homework well, and manages to brilliantly capture much of the political intrigue of the different periods about which she writes while weaving them into her plot. The two scenes I found most powerful were her nightmarish depiction of the day the “Terror” erupts in Paris, and her brilliant characterization of Johann Sebastian Bach’s genius through a virtual treatise on the mathematical science behind musical composition.
I think Neville somehow managed to produce a blockbuster of a book, which despite many serious flaws in both characterizations and plot contrivances, is riveting in its rich complexity. This book isn’t for everyone—you have to be willing to sit through the intricacies of a chess game, a detailed explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem, and the political machinations of monarchical succession in 18th century Russia, among other gems—but if you’re game, it will be worth the effort.