by Kate Mosse
History attributes those chilling words of the title to Arnaud Amaury, the papal legate who led the massacre at Beziers in 1209 CE.
Whilst the records tell that the French Crusader army spared no one, the real targets of Catholic hatred were the Cathars, a pacifist and gnostic Christian sect. After occupying Beziers, the French moved on to Carcassonne, headquarters of Viscount Trencavel, prince of Languedoc, who was forced to surrender in August of the same year. The last stronghold of the Cathars, Montségur, was besieged in 1244, when the Crusaders burned 200 of the inhabitants who refused to renounce their beliefs.
Labyrinth tells the story of the so-called Albigensian Crusade, mostly through the eyes of Alais, a young woman, daughter of one of Trencavel’s aides, Bertrand Pelletier. Kate Mosse’s research is meticulous. Her detailed descriptions of the land, its people and its history demonstrate her abiding love of the French Midi, one which shines through her fiction. Even when straying into the realm of fantasy, Mosse gives her characters and action a degree of credibility that is missing in many other works of a similar nature.
But Labyrinth is more than a fine reconstruction of events in the early thirteenth century. The author spins round them a tale of quest, intrigue, mystery and bloodshed – at times quite graphic – that surrounds not only Alais and her family but also Alice, her twenty-first century counterpart. The stories of the two women run in parallel throughout the book.
Alice is on a visit to France to take up an inheritance and to take part as a volunteer in an archaeological dig in the Sabarthes Mountains. She discovers a secret cave, two mediaeval skeletons and a ring engraved with the labyrinth symbol. Pursued by police, an unscrupulous lawyer called Authie and a sinister religious order, and haunted by strange dreams, she travels across France from Chartres to the Pyrenees in search for answers. On her travels, she meets the enigmatic Audric Baillard, an old Cathar historian who is much more than he seems.
Back in the thirteenth century, Alais has a destiny, though she doesn’t yet know it, as an apostle of the Grail. This Grail is not the holy cup of Christian legend but a much older concept, a sort of mystic spiritual power granted to chosen Gnostic believers. To preserve its secrets, Alais must face many dangers, from marauding Crusaders, from her spiteful sister and from the land itself, and she does so with determination and courage.
The fusion of past with present is something Kate Mosse does very well. In this case, all comes together in the secret cave, where the past is finally laid to rest and the present crisis resolved satisfactorily – though not without sacrifice.
Readers of Labyrinth who, like me, have read the later books of Mosse’s trilogy first will recognise some of the character names, and may look for connections that aren’t there. That is probably the best argument for reading this novel before the others. It’s a well-crafted historical fantasy, the history strong, the fantasy mostly hidden until the end.
To finish on just one negative note… I read Labyrinth in digital form. The Kindle e-book is badly formatted and poorly punctuated, something I do not expect from a major publishing house like Orion. One wonders who they get to do their proofing before the book goes on sale. I recommend buying the print version – I must suppose it does not show the same errors!