'Labyrinth' by Kate Mosse

Perhaps I’ve been spoilt, reading so many books throughout my life that anything less than wow is just, well… meh. Or perhaps it isn’t that at all. Maybe the fact of being a writer myself means I pick novels apart, finding even minor faults in certain passages that make me think, ‘That sentence would be better if…’ or, ‘But that doesn’t make any sense!’ I don’t always do that, though it’s happening more and more all the time. Mostly, I read like a reader, not like a writer. Unless a novel is especially bad or especially good, I read and enjoy and then move on to the next one. If I can see how the writer has made a particular passage work beautifully, I might think, ‘Ah, yes. Very clever. Well done,’ or I might think, ‘Wow, that’s just perfect,’ burst into tears at the beauty of it and then lament the chances of ever writing something so wonderful myself (actual tears, which spring as a result of the sheer perfection of the writing, have happened precisely once).

And I really wanted to love this book. A number one bestseller, according to the cover of the paperback; ‘Compelling… intriguing… passionate’, says the Sunday Times; ‘An action-packed adventure of modern conspiracy and medieval passion… a Grail gripper [and] elegantly written timeslip novel set in France’, says the Independent. (Why mention it’s set in France? Is this relevant to how good it is? That would be quite something. Come on, Independent, you can do better than that. Also… ‘Grail gripper’? Please.)

I’d had it on my bookcase for years, but had always avoided reading it. It’s long, for one thing, though that never usually puts me off a book. If it’s a fantastic book, well written, it can be as long as it likes, frankly (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell). But something was making me hold back. Finally, I thought I’d give it a go. I wanted something long, something to get my teeth into, and this seemed the perfect choice. At last, I thought, I’m going to tackle this bastard.

And at first, I loved it. I even wrote in my personal blog how wonderful I thought it was. But there came a time when there was one too many similes, sometimes as many as three or four on the same page, and I began leaving slips of paper in pages with things that had irritated me, knowing I would come back to it later and review it.

There are many great reviews of this book. You can look them up, if you like, just so that you don’t think this one is overly cruel or unfair. If you loved this book, good on you. Go for it. Write a glowing review. Knock yourself out. But it wasn’t long before I went from loving it to hating it, for so many reasons that I couldn’t possibly list them all (I would need a whole book to do it). Here are some of the things that wound me up: [*]

* On page 206, I read this:

Marie-Cécile opened her eyes… The car slowed. She opened her eyes to see the driver had stopped to take a ticket to the autoroute [my emphasis].

She did not, note, close her eyes in between. So either she did, and Kate Mosse neglected to mention it (a small detail, but an important one), or the character opened her eyes EXTRA WIDE and sat there in the car with an expression of shock and surprise on her face. The first of these seems the more likely.

* On page 209, this:

‘I fell,’ she said. ‘My shoulder took the worst of it. It is worse than it looks. Please, do not concern yourself.’

Now, if I were explaining to my concerned husband, as he’d spotted a horrific injury I’d sustained, I’d tell him it wasn’t as bad as it looked, to try to placate him a little and stop him from worrying. Telling him it’s worse than it looks is only going to worry him further.

* On page 280:

The telephone rang. Baillard opened his eyes. At first, he thought it must come from the street outside. Then the sound of the receiver hitting the floor.
Without knowing why, he found himself standing up, sensitive to a change in the atmosphere.

Without knowing why? Sensitive to a change in the atmosphere? You don’t have to be that fucking sensitive to work out that a telephone receiver clattering to the floor means someone has likely dropped it, and therefore they must have received some shocking news. If Bailliard didn’t know why he was moving and about to go and investigate, then my conclusion has to be that he’s more than a bit thick. Either that, or he thinks he’s oh-so-clever for working out something which would be patently obvious to anyone except the terminally dumb.

* On page 309:

Alaïs assumed the purse [her sister was wearing] was a gift from an admirer, a wealthy one at that, judging by the pearls set around the neck and the motto embroidered in gold thread.
Beneath the ceremony and display, Alice was aware of an undercurrent of apprehension and suspicion.

Alaïs was alive in the thirteenth century. Alice is alive in the twenty-first century. They switch viewpoints throughout. Cool. So, in this scene, Alaïs transmigrates into Alice’s body and then changes back again? Unlikely. To be fair to the writer, this is an easy mistake to make when you’re writing a novel, especially a long one like this, but the editor, copy-editor, proofreader… No one picked up on it, at least not until after the paperback had gone to print, and by then, it’s too late.

* On page 373:

Most names were in black, but on the second line one name, ALAÏS PELLETIER-DU MAS (1193—), was written in red ink.

I’m not surprised. Someone was clearly highlighting a discrepancy in the record books. Early on in the novel, we learn that Alaïs is seventeen in 1209. That means that she would have been born in 1192, not 1193. Otherwise, she would have been sixteen instead.

* On page 384:

Alaïs waited for Sajhë at the agreed meeting place [where else would she wait for him?]. Her mind was full of questions she wished to ask Esclarmonde, questions that swooped in and out of her head, first one, then another, like birds at a river.

By this time, I was so fed up with the similes that this one seemed as though the writer was scraping the bottom of a very dirty barrel. There were thoughts clambering around in the character’s head, vying for attention. There you go. Done. And it was easy.

OK, one last one and then I’ll stop, I promise.

* On pages 397—98, Alaïs has copied down the Book of Words (the entire book, mark you), and in order to hide it, she does this:

Mindful that she could be interrupted at any moment, she folded the parchment [think about how thick parchment is] and slipped it inside a lavender posy.

A WHOLE BOOK? Wow. Either the posy is enormous (unlikely, as it fits under her pillow) or her handwriting is tiny, or… or it simply isn’t possible. Huge fail.

At the end of chapter 52 (!!!), I finally got sick of it and gave up.

I fucking hate giving up on books, especially when I’m so far through. It feels like defeatism. But I couldn’t bear to read another chapter of bad similes, badly written sentences and things that made me think, ‘What the fuck?’ There are far too many books in the world that I want to read, and spending time on this one was not, at least for me, time well spent.

Later on, I discovered (yeah, yeah, a bit late) that Labyrinth has been hailed as another Da Vinci Code. Had I realised that, I can honestly say that I don’t think I would have looked at it twice. I’ve never read The Da Vinci Code, though in my defence, I know a lot of writers, and some of them have read it, and they’ve all told me it’s crap, badly written, and not worth the effort of reading. I’ve corroborated these claims myself by looking at bits of it using Amazon’s Look Inside facility. I cringed. It was painful. This is not, needless to say, the best comparison to make for a certain type of reader, i.e., this type of reader. (A friend of mine once said to me, ‘Oh, I’m reading The Da Vinci Code, remember you said I should read it?’ I had to assure her I had not, indeed, said she should do anything of the sort, and that it must have been someone else.)

I was intrigued by the story of Labyrinth. It was a good premise, and I do like a bit of history, especially delving deep, right back, almost as far as records go. But in the end, this just didn’t do it for me, and I won’t be recommending it to anyone, least of all my friends. I am in the habit of recommending books, yes. But only good ones. This one didn’t make the cut. Sorry, Kate.

*For reference, I read the 2006 Orion first-edition paperback.