Back in my days working for a big chain bookstore I would let myself be swayed in my reading choices by what the customers were buying. If I noticed a trend, I would start making a list of titles to be bought when the next paycheck came. I knew I wouldn't be reading those books right away but that i would let them ripen on my bookshelves until the right time arrived. So was the case with Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. It was very popular among the buyers and book lovers and I just couldn't resist the temptation.
Labyrinth is an intricate story of the Holy Grail and the Cathars spanning centuries. The reader gets to be let into the world of the Medieval Carcassonne and the modern day France via the stories of two women, Alais who lived in the first half of 13th century and Alice Tanner, a volunteer working at the archaeological site in the Pyrenees in Southern France. Alice, being slightly stubborn and acting before thinking, decided to go alone into a cave she just discovered while working. What happens to her there and what she finds triggers events Alice hadn't ever dreamed of (in her worst nightmares). All of a sudden, the police, a dangerous and influential lawyer, plus her friend Shelagh are mysteriously interested in the discovery and seem to go to any lengths to get from Alice the last bit of information on what she found in the cave. And so it is that Dr.Tanner finds herself running for her life, stumbling on secret upon secret and not knowing who her friends and enemies are. Rewind to 1205 Carcassonne and we meet Alais, a seventeen-year-old daughter of honorable and faithful Bertrand Pelletier, wife of chevalier Guilhelm Du-Mas, and a sister to traitorous and dangerous Oriane. They all lived in murderous times on Pope Innocent III's crusade against Cathars of Languedoc. Alais is a girl of independent and stubborn spirit much loved by her father, who entrusts her with safekeeping of a mysterious ring and a book right before he leaves to fight the French Crusaders. Alais's life takes an unexpected turn and many things happen that break her heart but also make her strong in the resolve to protect the secret of the real Holy Grail.
I am aware that the plot may seem a tad complicated but the novel itself is not so. Labyrinth is many things, it's a historical novel, it's a mystery, it's a faced paced thriller and it's a romance story of tragic love. But all these elements blend together surprisingly well and in the end there's no need for a reader to try to comprehend it all better. As a historical novel, it was very well researched and very interesting. I really felt myself pulled into the world of Cathar religion and their persecution, especially because I had known next to nothing about that part of Medieval history before I read Labyrinth. Mind you, I usually do not like reading books whose main purpose is to ostracize the Catholic Church for all the wrongs but in this instance I felt that Ms. Mosse presented merely what happened without any obvious bias for one side or another. I realize that we're talking here about fiction but we all know how sometimes feelings and views of authors can be transported on to the pages of a book due to a possible lack of writing skills. Anyway, the only feelings that were loud and clear in Labyrinth, were Kate's love for history and for the country she writes about. It's certainly contagious and without being overly descriptive, the passages on the landscape and history of the land were inviting me to be there.
The only thing I did not like was the "over" usage of the French language. Despite being a translator and speaking two languages fluently and another one on an intermediate level, it is probably one of my greatest pet-peeves in books: when a writer uses phrases, words or even whole sentences in foreign language, without translating them. So was the case with Kate Mosse. I am not a genius, okay. French happens to be one of the languages I do not speak or understand therefore when I had to get immersed in the quick action and dialogue only to come to an abrupt stop because the people talking switched to French, I was agitated. Ms. Mosse did provide a glossary at the end of the book but that only contains maybe half of the French and Occitane words actually used in the novel. I understand the need to use some of the language of the country the book is set in, just to maybe ease the readers into the atmosphere of the world written about, but are whole sentences (and sometimes even more than one at a time) really necessary? I don't think so. It is my honest and humble opinion that the writer would have been better off skipping the foreign phrases altogether.
Pfew, is this long enough or what? I think that if you like historical fiction, filled with mystery, secrets and adventure, you'll definitely enjoy Labyrinth. If, on the other hand you expect the like of The DaVinci Code because you're a fan, skip this one. Although Mosse's novel is much better and there isn't much of the sensationalist theories on the Legend of the Holy Grail here.