Book Review: The Prophetess

I recently rediscovered the novels of Katherine Neville, and after reading all her books, I was left wondering what else to read. (I find that relatively few novels are really of interest to me.) Fortunately, the Unofficial Katherine Neville Home Page has a list of suggestions for people in my situation. I was led to The Prophetess by Barbara Wood; the book was said to be very much in the same style as Neville’s books, so I was interested.

One could write a lot about Neville’s books, but I will attempt to restrain myself and be relatively brief. There are four so far. Three of them, The Eight, The Fire, and The Magic Circle, are very similar to each other: there are two different stories, one in modern times, and one in the distant past, and the two stories are slightly related. In each of them, the main story is the modern one, and they all feature a heroine possessing some highly important information or object she must keep secret from nearly everyone else. In all the stories, she is unaware of who is her friend and who is merely pretending to be trustworthy in order to get in on the secret. All involve very far-fetched data encoding (how much information can one extract from a message?), and all culminate in a showdown in which the bad guys are about to kill the good guys but can’t do so while not destroying the secrets. All is then exposed, and the good guys who are still alive live happily ever after. Realistic they aren’t, but they’re great fun to read!

Neville’s books always contain two features of particular interest to me. One is the historical aspect. Neville always does an enormous amount of research prior to writing her books, and it shows. They are full of fascinating historical tidbits, so one feels one is learning a lot when reading her books. I believe that the tidbits are true, since from time to time I come across one that I already know. This helps me keep my confidence in the veracity of her historical information. The other is the large number of interesting ideas she presents. I don’t care much if they’re realistic; I care that they be intellectually stimulating. They always are.

Now, let’s return to The Prophetess. While it has some plot similarities with Neville’s books – the heroine carrying important information, the powerful villain, manipulative people who aren’t exactly villains but are at least a bit dishonest, the chase – the styles of the two writers are radically different from each other. Nearly every sentence of The Prophetess is focused on the plot; over the course of 400 pages, then, a great deal happens. However, this left me a bit disappointed. Wood doesn’t attempt to teach the reader about all the history and geography she has learned; for this information junkie, that is always a welcome diversion one can find in spades in Neville’s books. The plot-driven writing style of Wood makes for a fun read, and certainly a less intellectually taxing one than Neville’s books, but I ended up feeling less satisfied than I did by Neville’s books.

I feel that in every book Neville wrote, there was a theme she had in mind. In The Magic Circle, I think this message is that publicly available information cannot be dangerous; I almost but not completely agree with this, but that doesn’t matter. I didn’t figure out what it was in the others, but that is likely just my own stupidity. Perhaps Wood also had a global idea in mind in The Prophetess, but I failed to be convinced of this.

I was also baffled, in The Prophetess, by the recurring suggestion that an atheist might find it preferable to believe in a god, could one force oneself to do so. This was repeated on several occasions by the heroine of the story, herself an atheist, when talking to another main character, a priest who was questioning his choice of profession. As an atheist myself, I find this to be completely mystifying and stupid.

As I mentioned above, Neville places a lot of emphasis on information encoding. Wood is also interested in information encoding. However, Neville overexploits information to an absurd degree, whereas Wood is much more reasonable about it, so that it might even make sense. I’m really interested in the question of how much information one can encode in a short amount of space; in fact, I claim that mathematics is the study of encoding and decoding information. I’m pretty sure one cannot encode as much as Neville wants. Wood’s estimation is likely closer to the truth; her encoding and decoding seem entirely reasonable to me.

So, The Prophetess was a fun book to read, but not a fully satisfactory substitute for Neville’s books. I’m eagerly awaiting the fifth, but given that the last one (The Fire) came out in 2008, I may be waiting for a while.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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2 Responses to Book Review: The Prophetess

  1. teratoma says:

    > I’m really interested in the question of how much information one can encode in a short amount of space; in fact, I claim that mathematics is the study of encoding and decoding information.
    er.. isnt that computer science?

    • Simon says:

      I think mathematics does so much more broadly. Frequently, we take a package of information that’s tough to work with, and we package it up into something in which the relevant data falls out nicely. For a simple example, think of matrices. We start with a collection of numbers; when we put them in a box, it’s suddenly easy to do stuff with them, for example multiply them by other matrices. Or, if we have a sequence of numbers, we can make them into a generating function, so that further properties of the sequence are easier to extract. In a broad sense, mathematics is entirely about this sort of thing: how can we package information to be easily accessible, and what can we extract from such a package?

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