No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, August 08, 2009

#60: The Fire -- Katherine Neville job, these past four years, had provided me a lot more than structure or diligence or discipline. Living with the fire as I did -- looking into those flames and embers day after day so I could manage their heat and height and strength -- had taught me a new way of seeing. (p.61)

Sequel to the wildly successful The Eight (which did the ancient mysteries / modern thriller thing 15 years before The Da Vinci Code, and in my opinion considerably better): The Fire was slightly disappointing, though I haven't yet worked out why.

The point-of-view character (modern times) is Alexandra, daughter of Sasha and Cat: summoned to her mother's isolated Colorado home for a birthday party, she finds the birthday girl missing and a motley assortment of (eight) guests gathered from around the world. She also finds a series of Mysterious Puzzles, including the last chess game she played before the collapse of her proto-career as chess prodigy ...

The Fire is packed with esoterica (Freemasons, Native American mythology, the White Goddess, astrology, Hestia the Hearth-goddess, shamanic lore, the Firebird and the Phoenix, and hermetic town-planning) as well as historical characters (Byron, Talleyrand, Thomas Jefferson, Ali Pasha, Napoleon's mother). There are a plethora of cliff-hangers and provocative clues. But perhaps it's overstuffed with ideas, at the expense of the plot -- or at least of the protagonist's understanding thereof. Alexandra spends a lot of the novel being confused and overwhelmed by the events spinning out around her: I knew I had too many ingredients interacting with one another. And each new idea only seemed to ignite more questions. (p.116)

In some ways it feels very contemporary (characters affected by 9/11; the invasion of Baghdad; Basque separatists; a roller-blading lesbian named Leda) but in other ways it's curiously dated. Mostly due to paranoia, the characters eschew the Internet: technology is regarded with suspicion. Indeed, there's an emphasis on the old-fashioned, the primitive, the elemental. Alexandra works at a restaurant famed for cooking everything over an open hearth: her friend Key (one of the most appealing characters) prefers to fly old-fashioned aeroplanes; healing is provided by shamans rather than hospitals.

One of the stories woven into The Fire is that of Cinderella: and it should be no surprise that the kitchen-maid gets her prince. But many of the other threads seem to be left dangling: Nim, familiar from The Eight, just fades out of the novel, and Key likewise.

I did enjoy reading The Fire, and I found the twisty plot and intertwined threads -- past and present -- fascinating. But though it's pacy, exciting and clever, it just didn't grab me as The Eight (or even A Calculated Risk) did: perhaps it's simply that I didn't like Alexandra in the way I liked Cat. Alexandra felt weak and helpless: most of what happened in the novel happened to, rather than because of, her, and I can forgive her frequent complaints and protestations of incomprehension, because from her point of view it's pretty hard to make sense of everyone's motives.

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