Sepulchre: Different opinions

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Kate Mosse SepulchreSepulchre by Kate Mosse

Kate Mosse‘s Sepulchre is a historical fantasy — historical fiction with fantastic elements. I enjoy both genres, and this novel features a female graduate student (somebody I can relate to) as one of the main characters, and it’s available for download at Audible, so I thought it would be good entertainment on my commute. I got about ten chapters in before quitting.

The book seems well-researched, is competently written, the tone switches easily from past to present and back, and the characters are interesting enough. Here is the problem: It is full of enormous amounts of tedious descriptions of ancient and current French landmarks, French historical events, French historical figures, and untranslated French dialogue. I realize, of course, that France is the setting of this historical novel, but the effect of all of this name-dropping is to make me think that Ms. Mosse feels the need to prove she did her research — she’s trying too hard, and it comes off as pretentious. And obnoxious. Especially when I’m listening to it in audio format and I can’t just skim over the French words. Here are some examples:

It was not quite dawn, yet Paris was waking. In the distance, Anatole could hear the sounds of delivery carts. Wooden traps over the cobbles, delivering milk and freshly baked bread to the cafes and bars of the Faubourg Montmartre. He stopped to put on his shoes. The rue Feydeau was deserted; there was no sound except the clip of his heels on the pavement. Deep in thought, Anatole walked quickly, to the junction with the rue Saint-Marc, intending to cut through the arcade of the Passage des Panoramas. He saw no one, heard no one.

By the time a smoggy and hesitant dawn broke over the offices of the Commissariat of Police of the eighth arrondissement in the rue de Lisbonne, tempers were already frayed. The body of a woman identified as Madame Marguerite Vernier has been discovered shortly after eight o’clock on the evening of Sunday, September 20. The news had been telephoned in from one of the new public booths on the corner of the rue de Berlin and the rue d’Amsterdam by a reporter from Le Petit Journal.

And this one was the worst:

In the next stack she discovered a first edition of Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre. It was battered and dog-eared, unlike Anatole’s pristine copy at home. In another alcove she found a collection of both religious and fervently antireligious texts, grouped together as if to cancel one another out. In the section devoted to contemporary French literature, there was a set of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels, as well as Flaubert, Maupassant and Huysmans — indeed, many of the intellectually improving texts Anatole tried in vain to press upon her, even a first edition of Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir. There were a few works in translation but nothing entirely to her taste except for Baudelaire’s translations of Monsieur Poe. Nothing by Madame Radcliffe or Monsieur Le Fanu … The first was Dogme et rituel de la haute magie by Éliphaas Lévi. Next to it was a volume titled Traité méthodique de science occulte. On the shelf above, several other writings by Papus, Court de Gébelin, Etteilla and MacGregor Mathers. She had never read such authors but knew they were occultist writers and considered subversive. Their names appeared regularly in the columns of newspapers and periodicals.

At first, I found myself rolling my eyes at every French phrase and name-drop, but since that started to become a driving hazard, I just quit listening. I would much rather read a story whose purpose is to entertain me, not to enlighten or impress me. Sadly, Sepulchre did none of these things.

~Kat Hooper


 

Sepulchre by Kate MosseJudging 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.

~Rebecca Fisher

Sepulchre — (2007) Available for download at Audible.com. Publisher: An elderly priest brutally murdered. The body of a young man floating in the River Aude. A nervous woman sitting in a damask-draped room. A smiling man in the shadows. Four different people, scattered across France, scattered across the ages. The only link, the painted tarot cards they hold… SEPULCHRE is a spellbinding adventure that carries us back from the present day in the French spa-town of Rennes-les-Bains, first to the 19th century, and then further back into the stories of the ancient kings buried there with their treasure. For those who stumble upon the cards, unravelling the mystery of the painted deck will take them on a treacherous journeyof forbidden knowledge, the power of the church and the pull of the occult. A tale of strange music, personal ruin, murderous greed and age-old secrets — prepare yourself to turn over the cards…

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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4 comments

  1. Gosh, I hated this book, but I admit that the audio version may have colored my perceptions, partly. There is so much name-dropping (people, places, book titles, etc) and all of this name-dropping is in French, so when you’re listening to the audio version, it’s just one French phrase after another (I quoted a couple of them in my review), and it’s difficult to listen to and comes off as pretentious.

    I’m glad you liked it better and wrote about it, Rebecca!

  2. I couldn’t make it a quarter of the way into Labyrinth, and even though the subject matter sounds interesting, I think I will pass on the sequel too. Lots of great books out there I’d rather be reading.

    • Same here. I never did put my finger on why I wasn't enjoying it, if I remember correctly. I read Katherine Neville's somewhat similar The Eight around the same time and liked it much better, even though it's pretty high in the cheese factor.

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