Twenty years ago, Ballantine Books decided it no longer wanted to publish paperbacks exclusively, as it had done for the previous 35 years. Bucking convention, the firm launched its hardcover program with a first novel by an untested female writer that tapped into so many genres -- a little history, a little mystery, a little romance, all wrapped up in a cloak of mathematics-minded geek girl heroines in two time periods two centuries apart. Classification was nearly impossible. As publishing gambles go, this one was gargantuan: If the book failed, it would take an entire storied name, one that embodied a revolution in the way people read and bought books, down with it. That book did not fail. Instead, "The Eight" (Ballantine: 624 pp., $14.95 paper) became an international bestseller -- one that allowed Ballantine to repeat the same risk and reward the following year with "The Quincunx" (Ballantine: 800 pp., $20 paper), Charles Palliser's 500,000-word Dickensian thriller. The very lack of classification enabled "The Eight" and its author, Katherine Neville, to find a wide, devoted readership because it wasn't like anything else that had been published before. Not because it was unique -- there are nods to "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Gödel, Escher, Bach," "The Name of the Rose" and much else in popular culture and otherwise -- but because of Neville's ability to synthesize a whole host of historical and contemporary concepts in a way that made readers respond as if the work was unique. It's a brainier, more feminist precursor to the bestselling behemoth that is Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" (Anchor: 496 pp., $7.99 paper).
Calling "The Eight" a display of literary architecture is fitting because the premise hinges on 64 characters playing, by choice or not, in a life-or-death chess exercise called The Game. Every move --from young nun Mireille's attempt to save her cousin Valentine from the French Revolution's guillotine, Bobby Fischer-era chess star Lily Rad impulsively dragging not-quite-best pal Cat Velis to watch a tournament at the New York club, or a frantic search for magical chess pieces in the wilds of the Algerian desert -- is fraught with potential importance and narrative momentum. It's thriller creation according to a Fibonacci sequence.
Those who scoffed at "The Eight" and its narrative pyrotechnics seemed to forget that the novel is supposed to be, and succeeds as, a grand entertainment. Even if some of the events don't ring so true (Charlotte Corday didn't kill Marat; The Game's players include Napoleon and Catherine the Great; Cat's initial aversion to Lily is never adequately explained), the fun is in staying a step ahead of the chess moves, code-breaking and death-defying moments. There's also equal pleasure in keeping company with twentysomething computer expert Cat from the moment she introduces herself as being "in trouble. Big trouble . . . [on] that New Year's Eve, the last day of 1972." Her voice is wry and funny, bemused at what she's been pulled into but more than up to adopting the role of ordinary girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances. She's akin to Princess Leia recast as Han Solo with technological expertise (while her eventual paramour, the lissome chess master Alexander Solarin, gets the Leia part, albeit with better hair).
Once "The Eight" reached checkmate, closing the door on Cat, Mireille, Lily & Co. without locking it, Neville wrote two unrelated novels, the financial cat-and-mouse 1992 thriller "A Calculated Risk" (Ballantine: 352 pp., $7.99 paper), and another historically informed adventure, "The Magic Circle" (Ballantine: 560 pp., $7.99 paper), in 1998. For years Neville demurred when asked about a sequel -- but now that "The Fire" (consider it The Game 2.0) is here after two long decades, I can't help but think Neville should have maintained her noncommittal stance.
THE FIRST clue that something might be amiss with "The Fire" (Ballantine: 448 pp., $26) is how Neville introduces her next-generation heroine Alexandra Solarin: "Before I'd even reached the house, I knew something was wrong. Very wrong. Even though on the surface, it all seemed picture-perfect."
As openings go, it suggests Alexandra is going to be a pale imitation of her mother, Cat, and that unwitting prophecy ends up coming true. The ingredients are there for Xie (a childhood nickname bestowed on her by her father) to live up to the title's promise, since she's a former chess prodigy and works with her hands at a restaurant specializing in preparing meals in a hearth, but when the plot gets moving or the codes need breaking, she's usually a few paces behind.
Alexandra's muted status not only exposes how much disbelief should be suspended in "The Fire," it also casts a gray pall over the reckless abandon of its predecessor. One should expect Cat Velis to age with dignity and tone down some of the fire in her own personality -- especially because she spends the bulk of this sequel as a missing person -- but she's almost another person altogether, defeated by life, lacking any sort of spark. It might be a metaphor for generational torch-passing, but the effect is to wonder if Neville lost touch with Cat's essence.
Once the fabric has been seeded with doubt, it ripples page by page. Would Lord Byron really be a part of The Game with a bigger part played by his possible daughter in Turkey? How plausible is it for Cat to assemble a cast of disparate (not to mention super-rich, intelligent and stunningly beautiful or handsome) characters at her snowy Colorado lodge, only to flee without notice? And even with the assumption that all expectations should be upended, should The Game really turn out to be a template for something different?
Once the car chases, the epic journeys across the Silk Road, the romantic entanglements and betrayals play themselves out, "The Fire" ends on its own ying-yang note of near-resolution. But instead of checkmate, it's more like zugzwang, where any concocted sense of completion feels like the reader's loss.