28 December 2006

Book Review: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

Labyrinth This book did what few things can: it made me forget about food. And not just any food - dessert. Christmas dinner was supposed to be followed by a very tasty mango dish that I was supposed to make. But I was too absorbed in my reading to tear myself away long enough. And on Boxing Day, my mother had to remind me to eat lunch. Despite the book having close to seven hundred pages, I finished it a mere thirty hours after starting, and it only took that long because I didn’t take it to bed with me Christmas night (and I only avoided that because I knew that if I did I wouldn’t sleep).

Labyrinth is a grail quest with a couple of twists. The grail is something quite different from the usual theories, and the main characters are women. Modern-day archaeology volunteer Alice Tanner discovers a cave - complete with altar, wall carving, and skeletons - in the Sabarthés Mountains in southern France. Its significance becomes apparent when people react oddly to its discovery, and before long Alice realises that she's in danger.

Eight centuries earlier, Alaïs du Mas is entrusted with a secret by her father. Now she too is in danger, both from those who want the knowledge for themselves and the Catholic armies that are advancing on the Cathar Languedoc region. The books must be protected by being removed into the mountains, but with the infamous Simon de Montfort on the way travelling is the riskiest thing to do.

Of course you know as soon as you pick up a book like this that the villains are going down - eventually - but the question remains of how many of the good guys and girls they’ll take with them. Plus a host of others, like why various items were so important, and just who owned those bones? But it wasn’t just the mystery that dragged me through this book at breakneck pace; it was the author’s unerring ability to switch to the other century just when things were most interesting, and to hint at things that are only revealed toward the end. So you have to keep reading a) to find out what happens, and b) to find out if you’re right. Which in a way is immensely frustrating, but also immensely satisfying; it's been ages since I’ve been so thoroughly sucked into a book.

There’s so much I want to rave about in this book, but I don’t want to bore everyone (at least, not more that I already have :-). So I’ll just quickly - kind of - say this. Don’t let the book’s female focus fool you into thinking there’s no hero; there is, and oh what a hero he turns out to be ... when you finally find out who the hero is. No, not every character has an analogue in the other century, and they don’t all have such similar names as the two heroines. I loved the way the fiction had been woven into the historical record - it was done so well, in fact, that I had to Google Raymond-Roger Trencavel just to check that he was real. And I really, really wish I had a knack for languages not my own, because there’s words of Occitan (the recently revived tongue of the Languedoc region) scattered throughout the book. A language that nearly died out - now that would be cool to learn if I weren’t linguistically challenged.

Okay, you're yawning. I’ll stop raving now.

Rating: A

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776