God awful: ‘Labyrinth’ by Kate Mosse

Like Ken Follett, Kate Mosse is one of those unfortunate writers with a nose like a bloodhound for a good story, but who can’t write to save their lives. The reader suffers under the weight of this fact for all 700 pages of Labyrinth, Mosse’s obscenely well-reviewed novel of the Holy Grail where an obvious love for Carcassonne is besmirched by tedious characters, unconvincing dialogue, awful Hollywood clichés and lots of plain old bad writing.


The novel’s plot is irresistible. Two principal characters, 800 years apart. The contemporary Alice Tanner’s discovery of a cave on an archaeological dig awakens a powerful déjà-vu of Alaïs Pelletier du Mas, the 13th century daughter of the steward of Carcassonne at the time of the Albigensian heresy, who finds herself charged with protecting the most explosive secret in history: three books that resolve the mystery of the Holy Grail.

Jessica Brown Findlay as Alaïs in the 2012 TV adaptation.
Jessica Brown Findlay as Alaïs in the 2012 TV adaptation.

Naturally, there are a whole lot of bad guys who also want the books, notably Alaïs’ evil older sister Oriane (sigh) and the equally evil Guy d’Evreux, who spends most of his time banging on the walls of Carcassonne and behaving like a typical Crusader by slaughtering as many Cathars as he can, the nearest Muslims being inconveniently situated on the other side of the Pyrenees. There is a kind of reincarnation that takes place between these two timelines, with visible modern counterparts of the medieval characters dominating the contemporary side of the novel. Everything is there for a great novel, but Labyrinth just…isn’t great.

Katie McGrath as Oriane
Katie McGrath as Oriane

Almost all of the novel’s weak points can be roughly grouped under the fact that we are dealing with superbly bad writing here. The characters in both timelines are portrayed without the slightest attempt at subtlety. Nothing they say or do is enough to persuade us that we may (someday) find them interesting. Alice, for instance, seems to be perpetually condemned to the gallows of wondering ‘What the hell?’ or ‘What the hell is going on?’, before miraculously acquiring a more extensive vocabulary towards the end of the book. Oriane is less interesting (and less convincing) than Colin Farrell discussing The Cherry Orchard. One is not frightened of her, or disgusted with her (which we should be, considering some of the things she gets up to): she simply exists. Poor Alaïs is simply incapable of inspiring anything in the reader apart from the desire to punch her. The further down the list of dramatis personae you get, the worse it becomes. Don’t even get me started on Alaïs’ husband, the dashing and dull chevalier Guilhem du Mas: while writing this, I am struggling considerably to think up a few more words to describe him, but, as in the case of Oriane, words fail me. He simply exists. To add insult to injury, the parallels between medieval and modern characters are decorated with sparkling neon lights as opposed to subtle prose, and induce far more rolls of the eyes than smiles of recognition. It’s just bad writing. There isn’t really another way to put it.

Vanessa Kirkby as Alice Tanner.
Vanessa Kirkby as Alice Tanner.

The characters, however, aren’t half as bad as the words that form both them and their world. The novel’s medieval characters speak an appalling and dizzyingly cringeworthy pseudo-medieval English that I simply can’t bear to reproduce here and that makes you doubt Mosse’s ever having read so much as a page of medieval literature despite the novel’s once-off jabbering about Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron. It is questionable that anybody in the history of creation ever spoke like this. If they did, they’d either have been burned at the stake or packed off to occupational therapy, depending on the time frame. The same is true for the smattering of contemporary French that one encounters in the novel: no one speaks like this, and no one ever did speak like this. Furthermore, the novel’s pages are saturated with grammatical errors that will disturb readers who can actually speak English, and the sections that are supposed to frighten us are overloaded with silly Hollywood clichés like ‘I’d like to see some ID’ and ‘at last we understand one another,’ inducing thunderous groans that have nothing whatever to do with ecstasy.

As I stated previously, this novel’s ultimate curse is that its writer does not know how to write. Her deep love of Carcassonne and of the Languedoc is evident. It is not, however, contagious, and there is simply too much wrong with this book for that feeling to change. As in the case of The Pillars of the Earth, I sincerely hope that the miniseries does a good job of turning a mediocre novel into a brilliant script.


12 Comments Add yours

  1. Jayne says:

    I loved the book can’t wait to watch the miniseries and also would love to visit Carcassonne my husband is also about a third of the way through the book and also is finding it a good read, better than some of the rubbish some people write, I find your views very one-sided and know many would disagree with you. Some books are purely entertaining just like the Dan Brown books not great literature but a damn good read.

    1. ladygilraen says:

      It is precisely because many people would disagree with me that I write in the first place. I don’t see books as being purely entertaining; they’re something infinitely more personal, artistic and spiritual, and if they don’t affect me in that way, I don’t see them as being a good read. So when it comes to reviewing books, then yes, my views are one-sided.

      1. Nicole Merlin says:

        Oh man, this book was the worst. I agree with you one hundred percent! (And I actually enjoy Dan Brown’s books. This, however, was something else — truly, truly awful.) Is everyone so nice when they review this book because Kate Mosse is one of the organisers of the Orange Prize? I am struggling to figure out why it always gets such fabulous reviews.

        There are grammatical errors and anachronisms that I found really irritating (for example, references in 1209 to ‘Saint Francis’ when he was in fact not sainted until 1228) and some incredibly clunky prose.

        My favourite quote:
        “The air was hot and humid. It seemed to squat over the yard and buildings like a malignant Buddha.” (!?!?!?!?)

        I am lazily lifting this from my own Goodreads review (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/806573882?book_show_action=false), but I wanted to come back here and show my solidarity!

      2. ladygilraen says:

        Yes! Solidarity is much appreciated! I had no idea Kate Mosse is an Orange Prize organiser, it would explain why everyone seems to think she’s this fabulous author! My copy of Wolf Hall has a recommendation by her on the back cover; ever time I see it I die a thousand deaths. (And a malignant Buddha? SERIOUSLY???)

      3. Nicole Merlin says:

        Yes, she co-founded it with her husband apparently. I think she must be quite prominent in the books & publishing scene, or perhaps she is really really nice or something, because I don’t really know how else to explain the constant high praise for her writing!

  2. Roger Tyson says:

    You close your review with: “I sincerely hope that the miniseries does a good job of turning a mediocre novel into a brilliant script.”
    In the U.S., the results are finally in:
    It did not.

  3. Philip Ogley says:

    Yes, got 140 pages in and gave up this tedious novel. Actually went online to find out what happened because I couldn’t be bothered to read it. Never done that before.

  4. Don Chatfield says:

    Thanks for this honest and helpful review! As I read Labyrinth, I kept stopping and looking up reviews, and feeling like an outcast because so many reviewers found it wonderful and I just felt lost most of the time. Ok, no, I couldn’t stop reading, but that’s only because I wanted to see how it came out and what the Grail was. But the ending, as Anna Russell says of esoteric analyses of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, left me “as befogged as before.” The Grail is so important people kill each other in bloody horrible ways, and even blow up part of a mountain to get at it, but the Grail turns out to just mostly be parents being nice to their children. Mosse just does a bunch of rapid shell-game moves at the end, and there isn’t a pea under any of the shells. As for remembering who many of the characters are after a few head-spinning cross-century jumps, I’m sorry I didn’t start keeping a character list; there really should be one in the front of this book, as Lindsey Davis, say, has the courtesy to do in the front papers of her Falco novels. My fantasy about all this is that someone’s PhD supervisor said, “You’re a tireless researcher on the Albigenses, but all these facts don’t hang together as a dissertation. Perhaps you could make a sort of, um, historical novel out of some of it?”

  5. Oh, thankyou so much for proving that I’m not alone in my exasperation with Mosse’s writing. Her grammar is atrocious, her ability to use pronouns to define which character is speaking at any given moment is minimal, and her belief that a sword can be sharpened by hitting it with a hammer is … I’m not sure there’s actually a word for how delusional that is. The novel reads like a first draft, and I get the impression that Mosse doesn’t believe in proofreaders, editors or her own fallibility.

  6. Akira says:

    Yes, definitely the characters are not strong enough to get a hold on you and make you believe that another life has started but somewhere I find that the plot and ideas are really good and there are times when I stop and read some paragraph all over again because they are just so beautiful. Yes, there are anachronisms and errors but goods too.
    I am currently reading the novel and let’s see how it goes.
    #ladygilraen I really like your reply to Jayne.

  7. Akira says:

    Hello, folk.
    Full agreement with the point that characters are vague and anachronisms are actually annoying but there have been times where I pause and re-read some lines. Those ‘Woah!’ lines. They are very few but there nonetheless. Those lines made me read the book, that’s it. I really like the plot though. Could have turned out way more better.
    #ladygilraen I found your reply to #Jayne really beautiful.

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