When its existence is threatened by the French Revolution, Montglane Abbey is disbanded and its nuns scattered across Europe. Thirty-two of them carry part of the Abbey’s dangerous secret: pieces of a chess set presented to Charlemagne; said to be cursed; and containing the key to great power. Eight of the women are to serve as collection points for pieces whose possessors are obliged to flee; one of these is a teenage novice sent to Paris and the guardianship of the revolutionary painter Jacques-Louis David. But some secrets just can’t be kept and soon Mireille is running for her life, heading to Africa under the unlikely protection of a vertically challenged young soldier from Corsica....
Nearly two centuries later, computer genius Catherine Velis refuses to assist in her firm’s shady dealings and is promptly reassigned on a one-year posting in Algiers, working for some oil outfit no-one’s ever heard of (called OPEC). Even before she leaves the States strange things start to happen. First she receives a seemingly nonsensical warning of danger from a phony psychic. Then her chess-mad acquaintance Lily Rad - lacking in charm and abundant in girth - hauls her to the opening match of an American invitational chess tournament ... which features an uninvited Russian. Alexander Solarin also warns Cat of imminent danger, and soon proves to have an unfortunate habit of leaving corpses in his wake.
Undaunted, Cat travels to Africa, both to work and to do a favour for Lily’s uncle Llewellyn, a third-rate antiques dealer who’s trying to get hold of a handful of ancient chess pieces. She quickly finds herself caught up in a real-life chess game, with the Montglane Service as its prize. Two teams are fighting for its possession, with players representing the pieces on the board - even sacrificial pawns. Cat is no ordinary pawn, however, but the one destined to reach the eighth row and replace the retiring Black Queen. And even the chessboard know-how of Lily and Solarin might not be enough to outwit the White Team, determined to possess the Service and its secret whatever the cost.
This book left me in a quandary the morning I finished it (Tuesday ... I’m a little behind). I got off the train with sixty-odd pages to go, a lot of questions still unanswered ... and a class to go to. For a moment I was actually tempted to try reading while walking, just to get through a few more pages. But I decided against it as peak-hour traffic on Vulture Street isn’t something you want to mess with, and I didn’t fancy making a fool of myself by blundering into the railings of the Goodwill Bridge. So I was forced to wait and devour it on the way home instead.
Being partial to both chess and word puzzles, I was always going to be in for a good read. The historical half starts quickly and doesn’t slow down. The backstory was neatly filled in with tales (The Abbess’s Tale, The Empress’s Tale) that reminded me of Chaucer, and the whole thing was packed with real historical figures, from Russian royalty to American rebels. The twentieth-century thread began more slowly and was hampered early on by some heavy-handed foreshadowing of the ‘if only I had known...’ variety. But once the action began it proceeded more smoothly.
My favourite thing about this book was the relationship between Cat and Lily. At first Cat found chess-mad, impractical Lily quite tiresome, but when obliged to work together they made an impressive team. Lily’s chess expertise proved invaluable (and as an added bonus, her Algerian adventures caused her to lose so much weight, when she returned to New York the bad guys didn’t recognise her). Even Carioca, Lily’s yappy fluffball pooch, proved useful, digging up buried treasure and developing quite a taste for bad guy’s ankles.
One thing that puzzled me through this book was why set part of it in 1973? It seemed an odd choice of year. But the ending explained it all, when the villains met a fitting fate that was utterly dependant on the timing.
And a big thank you to Kirsten for the recommendation.