Dark Passages: Same Game, Different Rules

My newest Dark Passages column at the Los Angeles Times compares and contrasts Katherine Neville’s international bestseller THE EIGHT with its sequel THE FIRE, two decades in the making and due for release next month:

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).

Read on for the rest, and my take on THE FIRE.