Judging from her review, Kat obviously wasn’t such a big fan of Kate Mosse’s Sepulchre! But perhaps her report coloured my own reading of the novel, for though I went in expecting the worst, I instead found myself quite enjoying it.
Sepulchre is the follow-up to Mosse’s best-selling novel Labyrinth, but I found that it was far superior in terms of pacing and plotting. As with Labyrinth, the story is divided into two storylines, one set in 1891, the other in 2007. The chapters alternate between these two periods, following the adventures of Leonie Vernier in the past, and Meredith Martin in the 21st century.
Leonie knows that something is wrong when her brother Anatole insists on secrecy in planning their trip to the Domaine de la Cade, an estate belonging to their aunt located some miles south of Carcassonne. Leaving behind their mother and their luxurious Parisian lifestyle, Leonie is aware of danger lurking in the countryside, though she doesn’t understand how or why. Her brother is keeping secrets from her, and her aunt Isolde seems haunted by fears that no one will explain.
It’s in the forest surrounding the isolated house that Leonie discovers a Visigoth sepulchre that bears a remarkable resemblance to the chapel at Rennes-le-Château, including a grotesque demon statue that holds up a salver by the door. As her investigations continue she learns more about the dark history of her uncle Jules Lascombe, the tarot cards that were in his possession, and rumours of a terrible demon that stalks the valleys and hills surrounding the Domaine de la Cade.
Meanwhile, Meredith Martin is a young student researching a biography of the composer Claude Debussy when she becomes embroiled in her own mystery. Meeting with the handsome young owner of the Domaine de la Cade, she learns that there was a terrible fire in its past, one that claimed several lives. Discovering clues in tarot cards and old photographs, she attempts to uncover just what happened all those years ago — and what connection it has to her own existence.
Her story (and characterization) is significantly less interesting than that of her historical counterpart, but both women are likeable enough and Mosse finds a way to make their stories intersect by the final chapters. Readers of Labyrinth will also enjoy reappearances from familiar characters (namely Shelagh O’Donnell and Auric Baillard) as well as the sense that this story is just a small part of the greater history of the Languedoc.
I was rather lukewarm on Labyrinth, finding the structure to be confusing and the characterization weak; ultimately a great premise with a somewhat mediocre delivery. And yet for all of that, something about the story drew me in. Kate Mosse is gifted at descriptive prose, bringing to life the beauty and history of the south of France, and has a keen eye for slipping history into the story without bringing everything to a screeching halt. The strength of Sepulchre lies in the atmosphere it sustains, where every page is filled to the brim with the scents and sounds of southern France. Reading is almost like being there, and you can tell that Mosse knows the area well.
But as for the story… ? Well, the threats in both the historical and contemporary plots are rather mundane (a jealous lover and a covetous uncle, respectively) and the supernatural elements are kept in the background. Though Mosse touches on the mystery surrounding Rennes-le-Château and Bérenger Saunière (and even name-drops The Da Vinci Code), she offers little insight into what might have actually been going on in this period, and nothing whatsoever on all the conspiracy theories and mysteries that permeate this time and place.
This can be a little disappointing, for many of the mysterious elements remain unexplained, and plenty of questions are left unanswered. Granted, you could argue that this is all part of the atmosphere, where things purposefully remain shrouded in legends and half-truths, but as a reading experience it’s a bit like nibbling at the edges of a chocolate cake and never getting to the rich gooey center.
As such, things like the tarot, demonic activity, rumours of lost treasure and the strange activities of Bérenger Saunière are introduced, but never really go anywhere (except to a rather confusing denouement at the Visigoth sepulchre — I’ll have to read it a second time to figure out what was actually going on), and much of the novel could have been significantly cut to speed up the pacing a little. Lengthy sequences involving a riot at the Place de l’Opera and Meredith’s tarot card reading add nothing to the overall story and feel superfluous in hindsight.
It’s a true oddity of a book, and certainly not to everyone’s tastes. Despite Mosse’s mastery of descriptive prose, she’s way too reliant on telling rather than showing, leading many of her paragraphs feeling hopelessly long-winded. I was nearly halfway through the book before I realized that not an awful lot had actually happened.
Kat found it too verbose and uninteresting, but I’ll admit to a weakness for the subject matter and Mosse’s ability to capture the south of France — in the past and the present — so vividly on the page. Deep down I know this isn’t a particularly satisfactory story, but… gah! I just find myself compelled by the way she tells it. Consider this one of my more subjective reviews, and try to get a feel for Mosse’s style before committing yourself to a full read — perhaps with her novella The Winter Ghosts, which can be easily consumed in a couple of sittings. If you enjoy that, you may want to take a chance on one of her larger novels.