The Fire by Katherine Neville Ballantine Books, HK$256 In 1988, Katherine Neville's debut novel, The Eight, was published to critical acclaim and went on to become a best-seller. A postmodern thriller in which the heroine enters a cryptic world of danger and conspiracy to recover the pieces of the Montglane Service - a chess set once owned by Charlemagne - it predated The Da Vinci Code. Now, two decades later, Neville has followed it with a sequel, The Fire. As in her debut novel, The Fire features two intertwined tales set a couple of centuries apart. The first opens with a father escorting his chess-prodigy daughter, Xie, to a Russian monastery to take part in a prominent tournament. However, before the match can begin, Xie's father is shot dead. Xie is unaware that 30 years earlier her parents had hidden the pieces of a supernaturally powerful chess set all over the world. In a parallel story, set in Albania in 1822, a key piece of the chess set is in the possession of Ali Pasha, a powerful ruler in the Ottoman empire. Under attack from the Turkish sultan, he sends his young daughter, Haidee, on a dangerous mission to smuggle the relic out. Structurally, the sequel stays close to the first novel: eight characters in two different time periods play a high-stakes game related to the Montglane chess set. The Montglane Service is Neville's creation, although she draws on medieval romantic legends surrounding Charlemagne, whose empire united most of western Europe. At the end of the first novel, the players learned that the board and pieces contained the formula for the elixir of life, but here it holds the key to the 'Big Picture'. So what exactly is the Big Picture? Even Neville is clueless, labelling it variously as 'Original Instructions', 'Natural Order' and 'Balance'. Ten years after her father's murder, a grown-up Xie, now named Alexandra, is cryptically summoned to her mother's mountain retreat. But her mother, Cat Velis, the heroine of The Eight, has gone missing, leaving behind a string of clues for Xie to follow. After the horrific death of her father, Xie's mother forbade her to play chess, but a chessboard laid out with Xie's last game is one of the clues. Alexandra is soon joined by an eclectic cast of characters: her aunt Lily, chess grandmaster Vartan, to whom Xie lost her last game, and a group of neighbours - each with mysterious ties to the world of chess. The number of guests at the party is eight; the game has begun again. In the historical narrative too, a party of eight - including Napoleon's mother, Letizia Bonaparte, and Lord Byron, in an absurd turn as a renegade - gathers to discuss the game. Ostensibly, the high stakes are worth killing for. Yet not much killing takes place. Neville has set up the plot as a chess game, but the characters play like novices. And although it's an unwritten rule of the thriller genre that the protagonist is drawn into the plot against their will, Xie is a surprisingly blinkered heroine, both clueless and melodramatic. Worse, she has a friend who mouths cliches so ceaselessly that The Fire resembles a compendium of American idioms. The historical threads - stuffed with references to dervishes, Sufi mystics, Vedas, the Magi, US presidents and ancient Baghdad - give the book the narrative logic of a thesaurus dedicated to the arcane and exotic. As a high-concept literary thriller, The Fire sputters.