Thursday, 18 April 2013

Review: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

You may remember my excitement a couple of weeks ago at having rooted out some new purchases from Waterstones. After already tackling The President's Hat (see my review here), I decided it was time to wade into the 694 page epic, Labyrinth. I had high hopes for this one. Having steered clear of the recent TV serialisation, I will admit that the ads had me intrigued. Promising a Da Vinci Code-like plot, premised on historical mystery, it did not take a huge amount of effort on the part of Waterstones to secure my purchase (although the multi-buy sale certainly helped).

Labyrinth tells two stories simultaneously: that of 17 year old Alais in 13th century southern France, and that of the academic Alice Tanner in 2005. The narratives are tied together by the unravelling of the mysteries of the 'true' Grail, which is written and bound in three volumes, and the symbol of the labyrinth. After Alice happens upon a cave containing skeletons and an altar, whilst on an archeological dig in the French Pyrenees, she starts in motion a series of events that pose a threat to the security and secrecy of the Grail. Alice finds herself dreaming of Alais's existence in Carcassonne as she attempts to protect the labyrinth's secrets, against the backdrop of French Crusaders coming to Carcassonne to rid the land of 'heretics'. Alice eventually realises that, like Alais, her destiny is inseparable from that of the Grail. Kidnapping, murder, and the search for power drive this plot, as both Alais and Alice fight to the same end.

So, what is my verdict? Sadly, I really did not love this book, and not for want of trying. I slogged my way through all 694 pages, willing it to get better. But to no avail. It certainly contains all of the elements that you would ask for in a thriller - mystery, deception, and the inevitable confrontation with death. Yet there was something central missing here. For me, it was unclear what the mystery was supposed to be. Of course, a good mystery should keep its answer hidden until the narrative's climax - but Labyrinth failed to establish what question it was asking. What was the mystery? Clearly it involved the Grail and a labyrinth symbol, and yes there were some unidentified skeletons in a cave. But not until the very end was I able to truly understand the point of the plot. Whereas The Da Vinci Code makes clear from the outset what its question/mystery is, Labyrinth fails to do the same. Instead, the double narrative of modern versus medieval offers only confusion to the reader. The purpose of the plot gets somewhat lost in the numerous murders, betrayals, and kidnappings that are thrown our way.

I like to think that I am a fairly forgiving reader. And, indeed, there were some great aspects to this book. The story of Alais in the 1200s invoked some wonderful characters, and Alais herself was a heroine of true individuality and strength. The placement of strong female characters in the novel's central roles was refreshing, particularly given the tendency of some thrillers to assign females a somewhat stereotypical function. Kate Mosse is skilful in the creation of her characters and it is primarily this that drives the novel, despite the confused plot. The historical nature of the novel is also executed well, with some brilliant and vivid descriptions of life in Carcassonne during the 1200s. However, I think that Mosse fails to achieve the blending of fact and fiction that I believe defines historical thrillers. Rather, she attempts to differentiate Labyrinth from the likes of The Da Vinci Code (and there are undoubtedly a huge number of similarities) by invoking the supernatural without adequate explanation. Alice dreams about Alais's life, allowing Alice to be guided in her own quest to guard the Grail. But this seemingly supernatural ability is never adequately explained. The Grail is also asserted, and shown, to have the ability to allow individuals to live for hundreds of years, again unexplained. These elements all read as an attempt to set Labyrinth apart, but unfortunately serve to further confuse the narrative.

So, sadly, this is not a book that I would recommend. Yet I do not regret picking it up. I really did love that Mosse placed her female characters at the helm, making them naturally capable in circumstances that might provoke otherwise. And I would certainly be interested in seeing how the TV serialisation picked up on these elements. But if you are looking for a gripping and well-executed historical thriller, I would probably suggest looking elsewhere. Needless to say, Dan Brown's Inferno is already on my pre-order list!


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