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.
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.
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.
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.