The Burning Chambers
by Kate Mosse
As my first public post from my new address, I wanted to tackle a book by an author of whom I’m especially fond. Kate Mosse’s love of the Languedoc always comes over in her fiction and I was looking forward to experiencing again the warmth of the southern French sun while the East of England had – it seemed – gone back to winter.
Set in Carcassonne and Toulouse, The Burning Chambers captures all the horror and bloodshed of the civil war between Catholics and Huguenots in the 16th century.
‘Minou was still tethered to the stake closer to the source of the fire. Alis was now tethered to the same stake; they were back to back in a complicated twisting of rope. There was no hope of untying themselves.’
Minou Joubert, a young Catholic woman brought up in Carcassonne receives a letter franked with a noble crest. The message inside reads ‘She knows that you live!’ Minou has no idea what it means and remains puzzled for a long time. However, as the novel progresses, the reader begins to understand (even when Minou doesn’t) that mystery and intrigue surround the circumstances of her birth.
Piet Reydon is a Protestant Huguenot, originally from Amsterdam, who has joined the resistance against the Catholic Church’s oppression. Minou saves his life when he is being pursued for a murder he didn’t commit.
Vidal/Valentin is an ambitious cleric, once a student friend of Piet, who will resort to any means to extirpate the Huguenots from the earth. He has formed a sexual liaison with Blanche, an equally ambitious and ruthless widow with a dark past.
Persuaded by her widowed father Bernard to travel to Toulouse, Minou and her younger brother Aimeric take up residence with their aunt, Madame Boussay. Minou discovers Piet is also in Toulouse, building an alms-house and preparing for the religious battle to come. Meantime, Blanche goes to Carcassonne and in the absence of Bernard kidnaps Alis, the youngest of the Joubert children. It’s really Minou she wants and this is her way of achieving her ends.
Minou and Piet share a belief that a person’s religion is their own affair and that reconciliation between the two factions is possible with a bit of trust and good will. Sadly, we are left with the feeling that, surrounded by so much prejudice, propaganda, intrigue and hatred, humanity’s cause is lost. Hopeless in 1562 and no less so in 2018!
‘The killing started at dawn on Wednesday, the thirteenth day of May.’
The Catholic forces strike Toulouse mercilessly, putting men, women and children to the sword, firing the city. In such a pogrom as this, the violence is indiscriminate, and people die whatever their beliefs or their prejudices. The events of April and May 1562 are well documented and Kate Mosse makes full use of history in conveying the horror of those days.
Minou has a French bible hiding a Will that proves her real origins; Piet has the genuine Shroud of Antioch, desperately sought by Vidal. They have to get away, but can they when militia are posted round the city, slaying people who try to leave? Meantime, in the village of Puivert, both Alis and her father are being held in Blanche’s dungeons. And it in a wood outside the village that the final confrontation will take place.
‘Minou suddenly remembered her mother telling her the story of Trencavel and the siege of Carcassonne in Cathar times. How was it that, in more than three hundred and fifty years, so little had changed?’
Kate Mosse does the politics of hate very well, as readers of her earlier historical dramas will know. Indeed, she has a special flair for creating characters that make one’s skin crawl. She seems able to collect all the evil and malice of the world into her antagonists, sometimes, I feel, to the overshadowing of her main protagonists and other innocents of the story. The Burning Chambers is no exception. The romance between Minou and Piet – and there is one – is patient and chaste.
Unlike Labyrinth and Sepulchre, The Burning Chambers takes place in a single timeline and, though mysteries abound, the fantastical element is missing. Foreknowledge that, only few months later, a much greater horror will take place in Paris on St Bartholemew’s Day mutes such triumphs as there are in the book’s climax. In spite of that, The Burning Chambers is a very enjoyable novel.
The publishers are doing what you might call a ‘Peter Jackson’ by making us wait two years for the second novel of the trilogy! [You’ll remember what Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings movies.] I’m looking forward to reading that too.
Postscript: As I finish writing this review, the sun is shining over the South-East and our very own royal wedding. 🙂