“Labyrinth” by Kate Mosse (Putnam Adult, 2006)

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If only Kate Mosse had published her novel not in 2006, but shortly after the astonishing success of the Da Vinci Code, it perhaps would’ve received the literary respect it deserves, instead of coming last in a slew of novels involving the subjects of the Holy Grail, the Knights Templar, and what they represent in the present day.  The quote on the back of the paperback edition from the Kirkus Review really says it all: “A quickly paced adventure that wears its considerable learning lightly – and of higher literary quality than The Da Vinci Code, to which it will inevitably be compared.”  And yet Labyrinth goes more than a few steps further, not just adding new and original twists to the myth of the grail, but adding a new depth and level that hasn’t been seen before.  As for the truth behind it all, Mosse doesn’t offer a note of explanation, but leaves it to the reader’s imagination.

Labyrinth opens with one of the two main characters, Alice, working on an archaeological site in southern France, where she finds a hidden cave and two skeletons within.  She also finds a unique ring bearing an unusual symbol: a labyrinth.  Notifying the authorities of the discovered site, with the skeletons it suddenly becomes a crime scene, and the archaeologists are kicked off the site.  The reader is then taken back in time to the thirteenth century, where they meet the other main character, Alaïs, a young girl held back by tradition and ritual in a chivalric society where the knight and the priest are strongest.  For the duration of the book, the reader follows these two characters, as they live their lives in parallel.

As Alice returns to her hotel, strange things start to happen, as strangers contact her about what she found in the cave, police telling her to describe exactly what she saw and confiscating her sketches.  Members of the dig go mysteriously missing, and people begin to die for unknown reasons.  Finding pieces of evidence, Alice weaves together the story bit by bit, and as she does she discovers that she is intrinsically linked to it all, and most importantly to Alaïs, but her strange dreams of this unknown girl from the late Middle Ages are the least of her worries.

Alaïs finds herself caught up in the changing and challenging times when the pope launches a crusade against the Cathars, a declared heretic group who believe that while God is absolute and utmost, the work they do in their lives is by their doing and not God’s.  It is a time when Christians are fighting Christians overtly because of their supposed heretical ways, but subversively because the northern French want the rich southern land of the langue d’Oc.

Wrapped in this dense plot is the story of the Grail, which every Christian seeks, and it is only when the three ancient texts with the strange hieroglyphs are brought together, that the true way to the Grail will be shown.  But the story of this Grail is not the one that we all think we know, but something deeper and more ancient that is tied in with this mysterious symbol of the labyrinth, and reaches back into Ancient Egypt and the founding of civilization.

While the last third of the book seems somewhat rushed, as Mosse forgoes the back and forth chapters through time, and relies on present day characters telling what they know of the past; there is an inevitable building that results in a climactic ending of not just character realization, but eye-opening shock on the reader’s part, as they finally know the whole story.  Like the symbol, Labyrinth is a story that begins simple and straightforward, but grows more and more complex, until the denouement when all is revealed and finally understood.  Check out www.labyrinthbook.net for more information.

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Originally written on March 27th, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.