11 January 2009

Book Review: Sepulchre by Kate Mosse

Sepulchre In 1897, an abbé in the south of France unveiled a cache of hidden treasure. It “revealed” the bloodline of Jesus and the Priory of Sion, spawning everything from outright accusations of fraud to The Da Vinci Code. But what if the abbé’s discovery was merely a diversion set up to distract people’s attention from events elsewhere in the region?

Seventeen-year-old Léonie Vernier jumps at the chance her brother offers her in 1891 of going to stay with an aunt in the south of France. Bored with Paris and keen to escape the tedious presence of her mother’s latest admirer, she doesn’t question the haste and subterfuge of their departure. What she doesn’t know is that Anatole has crossed a very dangerous man.

For a fan of gothic novels, the Domaine de la Cade is a paradise. It stands at some distance from the village and comes complete with overgrown grounds, dark legends, and a ruined Visigoth sepulchre that Léonie can’t resist investigating - even after finding her late uncle’s account of a terrifying visit. Nor can she overcome the temptation of searching the Domaine for a long-lost deck of tarot cards said to be hidden on the estate. Using them could be dangerous, but with the threat that is rapidly catching up with them Léonie may have no choice.

A hundred and sixteen years later, Meredith Martin has travelled from America to France to research a biography of Claude Debussy - a Paris neighbour of the Verniers and supposed member of the Priory of Sion. While her ostensible purpose in heading south is to trace Debussy’s wife, she has another reason - finding out about her birth mother’s family with nothing to go on save a piece of music and a photograph. A peculiar tarot reading in Paris is only the first strange event, with spooky things happening even before Meredith checks into her room at the Domaine de la Cade. Someone long dead wants something revealed - and someone still alive has formed his own conclusion as to the purpose of Meredith’s visit, assuming she’s after something he very much wants for himself.

Despite the title, there is no sepulchre in this book. Or there is, but it’s not a sepulchre as any dictionary would define it (a burial chamber) but an old church. (Though admittedly I can’t think of any synonym for church that conveys the same atmosphere.) That can be written off as an oddity, but alas, the book contains a number of errors that to my eyes stuck out like Uluru. Characters travel in the wrong direction, remark upon something that didn’t happen, have their hair inexplicably change colour ... a publisher’s office somewhere needs a new proofreader.

Moving on to the plot: There was much to like in Sepulchre. Not a fast-paced thrill-ride like Labyrinth, it takes the time to build up the atmosphere and tension like one of those gothics Léonie loves. Planning to go gothic myself for this year’s NaNoWriMo, I was glad of the opportunity to read such a good example of the style. In spite of the summer heat it was at times almost possible to shiver. The main villain was deliciously evil and intelligent enough to be a formidable opponent. So much so that Léonie needed a bit of help to take him down (from my favourite character from Labyrinth); and I’m afraid that Léonie is one of those headstrong, foolhardy gothic heroines. Several times I longed to give her a shake and yell ‘You idiot!’, and I have her mentally noted down as an example of what not to do come November. Happily she came good in the end.

I liked Meredith better, though she occupied a much smaller portion of the book. The events of 2007 unfolded with extreme rapidity, but it is possible to accept that with a bit of luck and a good grasp of all the information she picked up, Meredith could have put it all together so fast - and, I was pleased to see, without a man coming to the rescue. (Well, he tried, but she didn’t need him.) The supernatural element tied in nicely with the tarot theme, but its origin was never really explained and that was not the only loose end.

Flaws aside, this is still an entertaining book, especially if you love the mysterious and the spooky. Just be prepared to smile at the mistakes and be left with unanswered questions at the end.

Rating: B


Heather said...

Added this to my list. Great review.

Wendy said...

Very nice review, got this one in my TBR pile. Maybe I'll move it to closer to the top of the stack now.

Marg said...

I didn't mind Labyrinth when I read it a couple of years ago. I hadn't previously been inspired to pick up this book, but I might give it a go now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great review. I still haven't read either book by her and I really must read at least one this year.

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