The muti-million selling 2005 novel Labyrinth changed author Kate Mosse’s life. She invented a new genre of fiction – sweeping historical stories that put women’s experiences firmly at their heart. Now she’s returned, triumphant, to her roots with The Burning Chambers, the first of a new Languedoc trilogy based on the Wars of Religion which tore France savagely apart for decades in the 16th century.
For 35 years in the Languedoc and Toulouse, Catholics and Huguenots (protestants) ripped each other to shreds in violent battles, secret assassinations, and appalling physical torture. Amidst this terrifying chaos a 19 year old Catholic girl, Minou Joubert, falls in love with a Dutch-born Protestant, Piet Reydon, a Huguenot convert and leader of a resistance movement raising funds for the Prince of Conde’s Protestant army.
Their relationship places them in great danger; Minou has received a cryptic, threatening note bearing an unknown seal. The message reads: ‘She knows that you live.’ Meanwhile Piet is in possession of a priceless holy relic, the Shroud of Antioch, said to have wrapped Christ’s body after his crucifixion. Reydon’s enemies are in hot pursuit to retrieve it.
As the identity of the mysterious ‘she’ referred to in Minou’s menacing message takes shape, the girl realises ‘she’ is bent on vengeance and Minou knows she must travel to a haunted chateaux in the foothills of the Pyrenees to unravel a long-kept secret.
Mosse keeps her focus firmly on the love stories and the mysteries surrounding Minou and Piet, a touching affair of the heart which keeps the entire novel grounded. Because make no mistake, the plot of The Burning Chambers is enormously complex and ambitious; the sheer number of characters is mind-blowing.
But Mosse has an instinctive feel for the domestic and intimate that steers the reader through vast historical terrain, and Minou and Piet’s devotion as they try to reconcile their opposing religions has overtones of Romeo and Juliet.
Although the philosophical differences between Catholicism and Protestantism seem trivial to us today, it’s a timely read as we look to the deadly battles being fought in our own times between different shades of Islam. Mosse does not belabour this point, just as she doesn’t represent Catholics as bad or Protestants as good. Rather, she writes this: ‘Tolerance, dignity and freedom: Piet was ready to lay down his life to defend these principles. He was engaged in a battle for the very soul of France; a battle that would define how men could live and be free.’
The prologue, set in Franschoek, South Africa in 1862, indicates that the story doesn’t end in 16th century France. A woman carrying precious secret papers stands in a graveyard, to complete one final mission. She is thwarted. But this massive historical saga will obviously continue in Mosse’s second, third and fourth instalments of this quartet.
It’s a fascinating tour-de-force.