Labyrinth by Kate Mosse (Orion, 2005)

And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. -- The Gospel of John

Time lost can never be regained. -- Medieval Occitan proverb

One of the sorriest periods in human history was the Crusades against the Cathars in the Middle Ages. There had been Crusades in the past, even Crusades against Christians in foreign lands, but this was a Crusade against Christians in Europe, in what was to become France.

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne in 1209 March 1208, Pope Innocent III launched a Crusade against the Cathars in the Langedoc.

The Cathars were branded as heretics. They practiced a different Christianity to that ordained by the Roman Catholic Church. They were seen as a threat, a threat that had to be exterminated.

In 1209, most of Béziers were slaughtered by the Catholic forces headed by the Papal legate. When Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, was asked how to distinguish between Catholics and Cathars, he replied, "Kill them all, God will know his own". His words were recorded soon after the event by a respected Church chronicler who was also Arnaud-Amaury's fellow Cistercian. Contemporary songs of the Crusade refer to the slaughter. It was not an isolated incident.

The Cathars mounted a last stand at Montsegur, where when they were finally defeated they were all killed, men, women and children.

The Cathars were always there somewhere in the back of my mind. They were brought sharply into focus when a lovely friend Estie who I no longer see introduced me to the Era trilogy by Eric Levi.

Associated with the Cathars was the Holy Grail. What happened to the Holy Grail and other artefacts when they mounted their last stand at Montsegur?

The Cathars are believed to have been the protectors of the Holy Grail. [see The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Woman with the Alabaster Jar (neither of which are cited by Kate Mosse)]

The Crusade against the Cathars led directly to the founding of the Inquisition in 1233.

It is upon this historical background which Kate Mosse draws for Labyrinth, which immediately draws, maybe unfairly, comparisons with Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, or even The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln.

Kate Mosse provides an extensive bibliography, though neither The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail nor The Da Vinci Code are cited, although curiously both books get a mention in her later novel Sepulchre.

Alice, one of our heroines, is on an archaeological dig in the French Pyrenees. It is a hot summer's day. Alice is scrabbling around in the dirt beneath a large boulder, and unearths what she believes to be a Medieval broach. As she is admiring the broach, the boulder dislodges itself and rolls down the hill, and Alice narrowly misses an appointment with death.

Recovering from her near miss, Alice finds the dislodged boulder has exposed a cave which she decides to explore.

I'm reminded of Alice Liddell falling down a rabbit hole on a hot summer's day, although what this Alice encounters is a whole lot more sinister. Or the women in the garden finding the tomb where they expect to find the body of Jesus empty and the stone that should have been blocking the entrance rolled to one side.

The action in the Labyrinth switches between Alaïs in Medieval Languedoc in 1209 who is given a book by her father containing secrets of the Holy Grail and Alice in modern day France in 2005 in the French Pyrenees. Unbeknown to either, the lives of the two women are intricately linked.

Alice was on her last day of the dig before her vacation ended. She felt drawn to where her discovery takes place. Had she not unearthed the broach, had she not entered the cave, the tale would not have begun ...

Labyrinth cries out for an illustrated edition cf the illustrated edition of The Da Vinci Code, and no doubt one will appear to keep the money-making mills churning, but let's hope the illustrations are of better quality than were used to illustrate the illustrated edition of The Da Vinci Code.

Kate Mosse is a better writer than Dan Brown. Not difficult, but Brown is not as bad as portrayed by Salman Rushdie, who claimed Dan Brown makes bad writers look good.

Labyrinth is of the Gothic genre. If only the writing was of the literary standard of Mathew Lewis or Ann Radcliffe.

Kate Mosse (1961- ) is presenter of the BBC Radio 4 Saturday Review and Open Book. She is co-founder and honorary director of the Orange Prize for Fiction, and is co-founder with her husband of the Chichester Writing Festival at West Dean.

Kate Mosse lives with her family in West Sussex and Carcassonne (where Labyrinth is set).

Carcassonne (Carcassona in Occitan) is a medieval walled city, in the south of France near the foot of the French Pyrenees, in the former province of Languedoc. Within the walled Cité de Carcassonne lies the Château Comtal. Carcassonne was a stronghold of the Cathars, but fell to the Catholics in August 1209. The fortified city was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1997.

A labyrinth is not the same as a maze, even though they are treated as synonymous. A labyrinth has a single-path, unicursal route through to the centre. It is not possible to get lost. A maze has numerous branches, alternative routes, dead ends. It is all too easy to get lost. The 'labyrinth' featured in Labyrinth is not a 'true' labyrinth, although superficially it appears to be a real labyrinth. To say more would reveal the plot.

Synchronicity: When I picked up a copy of the Labyrinth, a couple of shelves in my local library had been covered in orange material with the short list for the Orange Prize for Fiction sitting on the shelves. It was Holy Week leading up to Easter. A couple of days later Queen Elisabeth II, defender of the Church of England, was handing out the Maundy Money at nearby Guildford. A tradition that dates back to the Last Supper.

Copies of Labyrinth have been registered as BookCrossing books.

BookCrossing: Books are released into the wild and their progress tracked through the Internet via a unique Book Crossing ID (BCID).

Books Worth Reading ~ The Da Vinci Code
(c) Keith Parkins 2006-2009 -- April 2009 rev 2