Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has become instant shorthand for those who consider it the last word in dumbed-down, crassly written fiction. But there is no denying the appeal of the globe-spanning, puzzle-based narrative, with strands reaching from ancient history to the modern world. Before The Code, Katherine Neville offered some ingenious sleight-of-hand in this style. Now she has followed up her debut novel, The Eight, with a blockbuster thriller that again pushes all the Brown buttons.
The premise of The Fire is refreshingly original. A father is escorting his chess-prodigy daughter, Xie, to a remote Russian monastery to take part in a prestigious game. But before it can begin, Xie watches in horror as her father's brains are blown out. Xie (now Alexandra) survives. But, 30 years previously, her parents had distributed around the world the pieces of a fabulous chess set, burying with them an eldritch power.
When Alexandra arrives at her mother's snowbound Rocky Mountain retreat, she finds that she must solve a puzzle to get into the deserted house (her mother is missing). It is the first of many puzzles in a danger-crammed, picaresque narrative involving the legendary chess set. All of this is dashed off by Neville with great verve. Still, if it were all the book had to offer, it would simply be trotting through the same territory as Brown, if written with more elegance and sophistication.
Neville, however, has an ace up her sleeve. A parallel narrative sweeps the reader back to Albania in 1822, where a key piece of the chess set is in the possession of a ruler of the Ottoman Empire. He sends his daughter, Haidee, on a perilous mission to smuggle the priceless relic over the ocean and deliver it into the hands of the one man who can safeguard both the chess piece and the vulnerable Haidee.
This man, she is told, is her real father. In a striking coup de théâtre, we learn that he is none other than George Gordon, Lord Byron. It is in this period narrative that The Fire's real fibre lies. Neville skilfully evokes this distant time and the character of Byron, and makes the reader cheerfully accept the preposterous plot into which she has shoehorned the poet. As a literary thriller, this is not quite in the upper echelons of the genre – but still comfortably several notches above Mr Brown.