I mentioned a few weeks ago taking another look at Kate Mosse’s novel Sepulchre. I’m glad I did so because it put me in the right frame of mind to buy her latest book The Burning Chambers. This is the first book of a trilogy which tackles in novel form the history of the persecution of Huguenots in Catholic France.
I hope to be able to pen my thoughts on The Burning Chambers in a few days time. Meanwhile, I took another look at the first novel in the Languedoc series, Labyrinth, and what I said about it a few years ago.
‘Kill them all; God will know his own.’
These words, attributed to the papal legate who led the Albigensian Crusade at the beginning of the thirteenth century, are no less chilling today than when I first read them in a history book. But we know to humanity’s shame that ethnic cleansing and atrocities in the name of religion are not phenomena exclusively of the Middle Ages. Arnaud Amaury’s words (if he did indeed utter them) might be the rallying cry of any number of religious fanatics through the centuries.
Labyrinth tells the story of the Cathars and the seige of Carcassonne through the eyes of Alais, the daughter of an aide to Viscount Trencavel, the prince of Languedoc.
Mosse’s detailed descriptions of the land, its people and its history demonstrate her abiding love of the French Midi, one which shines through her fiction. Even when straying into the realm of fantasy, Mosse gives her characters and action a degree of credibility that is missing in many other works of a similar nature.
But Labyrinth is more than a fine reconstruction of events in the early thirteenth century. The author spins round them a tale of quest, intrigue, mystery and bloodshed – at times quite graphic – that surrounds not only Alais and her family but also Alice, her twenty-first century counterpart. The stories of the two women run in parallel throughout the book.
Alice is on a visit to France to take up an inheritance and to take part as a volunteer in an archaeological dig in the Sabarthes Mountains. She discovers a secret cave, two mediaeval skeletons and a ring engraved with the labyrinth symbol. Pursued by police, an unscrupulous lawyer called Authie and a sinister religious order, and haunted by strange dreams, she travels across France from Chartres to the Pyrenees in search for answers. On her travels, she meets the enigmatic Audric Baillard, an old Cathar historian who is much more than he seems.
Back in the thirteenth century, Alais has a destiny, though she doesn’t yet know it, as an apostle of the Grail. This Grail is not the holy cup of Christian legend but a much older concept, a sort of mystic spiritual power granted to chosen Gnostic believers. To preserve its secrets, Alais must face many dangers, from marauding Crusaders, from her spiteful sister and from the land itself, and she does so with determination and courage.
The fusion of past with present is something Kate Mosse does very well. In this case all comes together in the secret cave, where the past is finally laid to rest and the present crisis resolved satisfactorily – though not without sacrifice.
I highly recommend Labyrinth to readers of historical fiction. It’s a great novel whether or not you are fond of the fantasical, though I stick by my opinion [for what it’s worth] that Sepulchre is better.
The Burning Chambers is also set in Carcassonne and I’m looking forward to reading it.