[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth has one of the best premises for a novel I’ve heard in a long time: two women, one from the past, one from the present, both caught up in a search for the Holy Grail. The former is entrusted with one of three books leading to the Grail’s hiding place, whilst the latter becomes entangled in a conspiracy concerning its rediscovery.
In 2005, Alice Tanner is volunteering at an archaeology dig in the Sabarthes Mountains when she is drawn to a hidden cave in the hills. There in a concealed chamber she finds two skeletons, one of which is clutching a book in a leather bag and a ring with a labyrinth design engraved upon it. Soon the police and forensic experts are called in, disrupting the site and annoying her co-workers. But one officer in particular — Inspector Authie — is so deeply interested in the whereabouts of the ring that he becomes rather threatening when it goes missing. As she explores the old cities and ruins of southwest France, Alice is haunted by vivid dreams and a strong sense of déjà vu, and eventually her discoveries lead her to a rich and powerful antiquarian called Marie Cecile de l’Oradore, a woman who has been searching for the Grail her entire life.
In 1209, seventeen year old Alaïs is a newly-wed wife who lives with her husband, father and sister at Chateau Comtal, a citadel under the protection of the very young Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel. One morning she goes to fetch herbs on the riverbank and discovers the dead body of a man in the water, his throat cut and his thumb removed. With that discovery, her father reveals to her his long-held secret: that he is one of the guardians of three books that contain the secrets of the Holy Grail. To complicate matters, an army from the north of France is invading Carcassona in order to eradicate the Cathar heretics. As the Viscount prepares for a siege, Alaïs’s father decides to unite the three books and entrust them to his youngest daughter, much to the jealousy and resentment of the elder Oriane. With her devious older sister determined to get her hands on the books, it’s up to Alaïs to smuggle the trilogy to safety.
These are the two main storylines, each occurring in a shared geography and occasionally intertwining through the use of dreams or visions, with the chapters alternating regularly between each one. It all sounds brilliant, but unfortunately, a fantastic premise doesn’t always translate into a fantastic book.
The main problem is the book’s truly bizarre pacing. The first half of Alaïs’s storyline is fairly inconsequential, in which she just sort of potters about, gathering information and interacting with the other characters. It doesn’t pick up until about two-thirds of the way through the book, but just as her story is getting exciting, there’s a time-skip from 1209 to 1244, and most of what she did during that period is related to Alice in the present day by a secondary character. Why wouldn’t you let the reader experience it first-hand through Alaïs’s eyes?
Furthermore, though Oriane is a fairly important character, being Alaïs’s sister and major foe, she doesn’t actually turn up until page 104, only to disappear again until page 318. As the central villain, she should have been given a bit more focus. The same goes for Alice’s nemesis, Marie-Cecile, who gets more motivation than Oriane, but also far fewer pages (plus there is a rather unpleasant Madonna/Whore complex at work between each virtuous heroine and her villainess counterpart, with both Oriane and Marie-Cecile’s wickedness being implicitly linked to their heightened sexuality).
Meanwhile, Alice’s story is complex to the point of convolution. I kept loosing track of the myriad of characters and their agendas, and Alice remains a cipher throughout. We learn absolutely nothing about her background (save that she recently broke up with her boyfriend) and it’s not until we’re well into the book that we even discover why she’s in France in the first place. Alaïs manages to be more interesting and proactive, especially since she’s given family and friends to interact with: her sister, her husband Guilhem, her father Intendant Pelletier Bertrand, and her friends, the elderly healer Esclarmonde and her young grandson Sajhe, all of whom have strong personalities and storylines of their own. By comparison, Alice exists very much on her own, and her supporting cast is not as well-sketched.
But though it’s not as good as it could have been, Labyrinth is certainly not bad. It’s always refreshing to read a book of this kind (a historical mystery/conspiracy thriller) in which women are the main characters, and Mosse paints a vivid portrait of southern France both past and present. The suspense certainly picks up toward the end, when the stories begin to converge on the same location, and Mosse writes with clear yet descriptive prose.
The book also includes maps of the area in which it is set, a few informative notes on the language and history of the period, a glossary of Occitan words and a bibliography for further reading. Mosse has certainly done her homework, but her extensive research never takes over her story. Though the novel heavily relies on historical events such as the massacre at Béziers and the Crusade against the Cathars in Occitania, it remains supplementary to the plot and characters instead of overwhelming it. Sometimes novelists get too carried away with showing off their knowledge, and they end up writing a history book — that is thankfully not the case here.