Labyrinth (a book review)

Pretty good. You know, if you like books.

Labyrinth, by author Kate Mosse, came out way back in 2005 (for you young people, that’s Y2K+5). There had already been quite the rain of books about quests for the Holy Grail or Templar treasure and whatever “shocking” revelation about religion or history was about to be revealed. That probably wouldn’t have been a big deal, but each author seemed to think they were there first and their story was incredibly original. Or maybe, on the heels of the success of The Davinci Code, publishing houses were calling up agents and saying, “You know what, we’ll take that Grail book after all.” Either way, I kinda tuned out. So much so, that I didn’t even notice when they made a mini-series out of this book. Now that’s tuned out!

However, if I had known that one of these books was not like the others, I might have read Labyrinth sooner.

Kate Mosse’s book is really two stories, linked together over 800 years. In France, 1209, the crusade against the Cathars is taking shape. In the city of Carcassonne, a young woman named Alaïs discovers that her father is more than just a man in the service of Viscount Trencavel. He stands watch over a sacred text dating back to ancient Egypt. As war falls upon them, he entrusts his secrets, and the dangers that will follow, to Alaïs.

In 2005, at an archeological dig in southern France, Alice Tanner stumbles across a cave that triggers memories she doesn’t understand. Memories of a life lived long ago, and the need to uncover the truth about that life. But there are others who want what she knows and will stop at nothing to get it.

By running two parallel stories, the author gives the reader both a historical drama, and a neat modern-day thriller. It’s a strategy that works, but one that also comes with a downside.

When it’s working, the intertwined stories are compelling and suspenseful. The research and attention to detail of medieval France provide a realistic backdrop to the story. In fact, the events and many of the characters portrayed in the historical piece really existed. The author, however, plays it smart by keeping the story personal to Alaïs and her family. Much of the tale is told from Alaïs’ perspective.

Jumping to the “present day,” Alice Tanner finds herself in a similar situation, with wolves prowling around her, hunting her down for what she knows. Only she doesn’t understand yet that she knows anything or that anyone wants her for it. Here, though, the story tends to skew towards a more generic thriller. The author still shows us her love of knowledge of that part of France and Cathar history, which adds dimension to the novel, but when the bad guys are after the good guys from the get-go, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for characterization.

There’s the downside. I found myself easily invested in Alaïs and her storyline. I found her character well-drawn, the antagonists “bad” but still human, and the real era of history that she lived in fascinating. To be honest, I think the author liked that part the best as well (even though I have no way to prove that). The present day, though, takes off into thriller territory immediately. I found characters somewhat thin, their links to each other not entirely convincing, and their decision-making more in service of the plot than the characters themselves. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any other way to do it. Juggling two different storylines and making them both equally compelling is difficult. And I do think that the author handles it well by keeping up as much mystery as possible until the last moments, when both storylines come together.

I think Labyrinth is an excellent book. Though the back matter indicates it’s a Grail-quest book, that’s not exactly true, and I was pleasantly surprised to understand what it was in the end. The plot aside, I felt that, ultimately, it was about the horrors of unjust wars (especially when driven by religious fanaticism), the lengths some people are willing to go to get what they want, no matter who they have to hurt, and the strength and bravery of two women, separated by centuries, as they try to protect the people they care about.

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