First the Cathars, then the Huguenots. The area of south-west France in which Kate Mosse specialises has an extraordinary history of religious and political dissent, one that she explores to great effect in her latest book, The Burning Chambers.
Readers of Mosse’s massively successful Labyrinth trilogy will be well aware of the brutality involved in the persecution and suppression of the Cathars in the 13th century. Three hundred years later, not much seems to have changed in 16th century Carcassonne and Toulouse. But this time the opposition to the Roman Catholic Church comes in the form of the Huguenots, a Protestant group originating in northern France.
These religious wars are complex but The Burning Chambers left me in little doubt whose side Mosse is on. The arch villains in this first book of a new trilogy are Catholic. That is not to say that all the Catholic characters are bad – they are not – but the deepest villains are.
Chief among them is the Duke of Guise who, affronted by the size of a Huguenot temple outside one of “his” towns, initiates a massacre. But that is merely a sideshow.
The lying, duplicitous, oath-breaking and over-archingly ambitious Vidal, canon at the cathedral of Saint-Etienne and possible future Bishop of Toulouse, is the supporting villain of our story. And the starring role goes to the evil, conniving murdering Blanche de Bruyere, chatelaine of Puivert.
Mosse is not Hilary Mantel, intent on a revisionist view of history. The horror and brutality of these times serve more as an integral background to an epic human story. “It is a Romeo and Juliet story,” Mosse suggests in her online video to promote the book.
Well, sort of, although Verona was a family squabble rather than a full-scale war resulting in thousands of deaths. Our Juliet is the very appealing 19-year-old Minou Joubert, living with her father Bernard, a bookseller and “a faithful Catholic, adhering to the old ways from habit as much as piety”.
Bernard is a liberal, obtaining and dealing in texts of all schools of thought. His wife is dead and Minou looks after her wayward brother Aimeric and her sickly younger sister Alis. She is an appealing protagonist and the story of The Burning Chambers is pretty much hers after she receives an anonymous and threatening note that reads simply, “She knows that you live”.
Our Romeo is Piet Reydon, a red-haired convert raising funds for a Protestant army. Once a college friend of Vidal, their beliefs and ways have parted. In support of the Huguenot cause Reydon has been part of a successful plot to steal a holy relic, the Shroud of Antioch, as a means of raising funds. But his conscience has got the better of him and he has had the shroud copied and kept the original safe. Nonetheless, as a conspirator against Church and King, he is a wanted man.
The Burning Chambers opens with a list of characters that covers two pages, sited in four different locations. At nearly 600 pages, it is obviously not feasible here to recount all the twists and turns of the plot and impossible to mention all of the characters. But lovers of the Labyrinth trilogy will know well that Mosse is up to the task of handling material on this huge scale skilfully, and for the most part she does so here, although for me the book picked up pace markedly in its final third when the storylines finally began to come together.
Mosse’s track record affirms that she is extremely strong on atmosphere. From the south-west of France to the east of England (2014’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter), her work is infused with the detail and spirit of time and place. The 15th and 16th centuries were brutal, ugly times and she spares us no detail.
When The Burning Chambers opens, it is with the torture of a prisoner in a cell in the Inquisitional Prison in Toulouse, “the oubliettes they called them, where a man might disappear and never be seen again”. Graphically, she depicts his pain and the instruments of torture while at the same time hinting at its futility: “He knew, when the pain came again, he would say whatever they wanted to hear. Truth or not, he had no strength left to resist.” Her re-creations of the bustling city and the contrasting countryside are equally strong.
The scope of The Burning Chambers and the two further novels to follow is wide. A prologue to The Burning Chambers is set three centuries later in Franschhoek, South Africa, where a European woman stands before a grave, finally at the end of a journey that has taken all her money and resources. We know only that she is there to reclaim “the fortunes and the good name of the Joubert family”. No doubt the next book, The City Of Tears, will make the connections clearer.
Meanwhile, The Burning Chambers will not disappoint Mosse’s fans and offers a very decent read for lovers of historical fiction. I am not wholly sure that I will be following the fortunes of the Joubert family all the way to the Cape but I was happy enough to spend a few hours in 16th century France.