Review of SEPULCHRE by KATE MOSSE
(second in the LANGUEDOC trilogy)
SEPULCHRE hooked me from the start with the terrifying action of a riot at the Paris Opéra. I recently read reviews of this book that claim it was "slow" and "never got going." That shocks me. I read every single page with zeal. Even the short chapters add to a fast pace. So I pondered this for a while, trying to figure out why people (and it did seem to be a fairly common opinion) would find this book slow. I came up with two possible explanations (and I also decided to avoid reading reviews before writing them from now on): 1. Mosse's first book, LABRYINTH, was a big hit, and sometimes it is simply impossible to compete with yourself. However, that explanation is a little dismissive of the claim, so I present theory 2. There is indeed more suspense than actual action. If you're looking for more of the mob energy from the beginning of the book, you'll find few of those scenes. Rather, quite similar to LABRYINTH, the story has an ominous sense of a threatening presence looming closer. There are still plenty of moments of high action, but most of the story is devoted to character development, the interweaving plot threads, and this building sense of doom. Mosse writes with a careful attention to every passage and character that easily held my attention, and I cared about each moment, big or small.
As with LABRYINTH, Mosse interweaves the past with the present. The conclusion that these plot threads will intersect is inevitable, but Mosse still manages to withhold exactly how. The story alternates between siblings Léonie and Anatole from 1891-7 and Melanie from 2007. Léonie is a vibrant, spunky, but very naive young woman who adores her brother Anatole, though she resents that he is clearly keeping secrets from her. Melanie is an American who finds herself in France; the party line is that she is doing research for a biography, but she privately admits that personal reasons have contributed to this pilgrimage.
Another potential reason some fans were disappointed might be that the protagonists aren't that likable, at least not Léonie and her brother Anatole. For me, that's not an issue. I don't need to like the main characters to enjoy a book; I need to find them believable. I did, however, like Melanie, even if she was rather cynical, but I wasn't as fond of Anatole and Léonie. That said, they were certainly believable human beings, so their story held my attention nonetheless. I disliked Anatole, because he keeps too many secrets, sometimes long past when there was reason to do so, (though it's still understandable why he would be reluctant to share yet) and in keeping those secrets, causes all the harm he was trying to prevent and more. His younger sister Léonie is a spoiled, ignorant girl bordering on woman who is only brave before things become scary. Yet her ignorance and naivety, while a little off-putting, also adds a childlike innocence to her character, a sense that she hasn't grown up yet, and that made me wish I could protect her from the threats she walks directly towards, not knowing any better.
There is a strong theme of fate, destiny, choices, and, specifically, tarot cards, in this book. I was impressed with how Mosse handled the subject. Destiny is tricky to even approach without a scoffing response from your more cynical readers. Mosse balanced destiny with decisions, and fate with choice, leaving the readers to decide for themselves: design or coincidence? Mosse’s understanding of tarot cards added an intriguing layer to the story without so much information that it distracts, and even sparked my curiosity, so now I want to learn more about how tarot readings work.
I do agree with the majority of readers that SEPULCHRE wasn't quite as brilliant as LABRYINTH, and I will touch on why. The story follows a similar pattern to LABRYINTH with the past and the present interwoven until they collide, but SEPULCHRE didn't pull off the climatic moment at the end as well, when understanding floods your brain until it might overload, and in just a few pages a book leaps from good to great. LABRYINTH seemed to link together like a perfect circle, while SEPULCHRE feels more like a chain link that is so near closing and yet refuses to close all the way. I also found one of the antagonists too evil. I don’t resent a book for a truly terrifying and despicable character as long as they are still believable and their motivations clear. The main antagonist from the present plot thread felt very real and understandable, but the antagonist from the past (who I am not naming to avoid spoilers) bordered on mental illness in how bent he was on cruel revenge. That may very well have been Mosse's intent (he is ill), but I think the story would have been stronger if he had some speck of light in him.
I agree that SEPULCHRE isn't quite as impressive as its precursor, LABRYINTH, but that shouldn't change the fact that it held my attention start to finish, drew me entirely into Mosse's world and is definitely worth reading.