The Burning Chambers is an epic historical novel by Kate Mosse, author of Labyrinth, set in the south of France in the 16th century, during the wars between the Catholics and the Huguenots (French Protestants). It is the first in a series of novels. Originally, I had heard it was going to be a trilogy, but recently I saw something on the internet that made me think it would be a series of four books or even more. The second book, The City of Tears, has just been published.
The book begins with a teaser, set in South Africa in the 19th century, which obviously must tie in with the main story somehow, but you don’t yet know how. I have a feeling that the series is leading toward that story line. The main part of the book takes place in 1562, during a truce between the Catholics and Huguenots, after the Edict of Toleration was signed, granting religious freedom to the Huguenots, but treating them as second-class citizens. The Duke of Guise, the leader of the Catholic faction at court, has no intention of honoring the edict, and many Huguenots are not happy, either, and wish to continue the fight.
It is against this background that we meet the novel’s heroine, Minou Joubert, the daughter of a Catholic bookseller in Carcassonne. Minou has one blue eye and one brown eye, a trait which proves to be important, because it makes it hard for her to disguise herself and escape when she gets into trouble. Her father is a Catholic, but he respects all religious beliefs and sells Protestant books at his shop. Minou’s mother had died of the plague several years before. After he returns from a journey, Minou’s father, who is usually cheerful, seems melancholy and sad, and keeps his distance from his children: Minou and her younger brother and sister, Aimeric and Alis. He stays at home, while Minou runs the bookshop. There is a secret about Minou’s origins, of which she has no idea, and which only her father and a few others know. One day Minou finds a mysterious note, addressed to her, at the bookshop, which says, “She knows that you live.” She doesn’t know what to make of the note, and never has a chance to ask her father because she soon gets caught up in a series of events that changes her life.
A Huguenot soldier who, as it turns out, had been imprisoned and tortured by the Inquisition along with Minou’s father (which explains his strange behavior), is murdered just as he was going to see Minou’s father. Piet Reydon, a young Huguenot who had fought alongside the murdered man, is falsely accused of the murder. Minou saves Piet’s life and helps him flee the city. The two of them are instantly drawn to each other. Piet is the son of a French father and Dutch mother, and had spent his childhood in Amsterdam. He had been in Carcassonne to meet with his fellow Huguenots, who are planning an uprising. Piet is tired of fighting and wishes for peace, but he knows there is no stopping the men who want to continue the fight. In order to finance the Huguenot uprising, Piet has a copy made of an ancient relic, the Shroud of Antioch, and sells the replica, which is so well-made that only an expert would not mistake it for the original. He hides the original away. Piet’s other reason for coming to Carcassonne is to meet with Vidal, an old friend of his who has become a Catholic priest. They had had a falling-out when Piet converted to Protestantism, but he wants to reconcile. Vidal, who turns out to be one of the two main villains of the novel, has ambitions to become a bishop, and wants nothing to do with a Huguenot. It is Vidal, of course, who frames Piet for murder.
The murdered man had known the secret of Minou’s origins, which Minou’s father had accidentally given away while the two of them were in prison. The murder makes Minou’s father realize the danger to his daughter, and he sends Minou and her brother to live with their aunt and uncle in Toulouse. As it turns out, though, they are not safe there. A murderous noblewoman, Blanche, the chatelaine of Puivert, a castle in the Pyrenees, is after her late husband’s will, which she thinks will deprive her of her inheritance. There are brief sections of the novel, in between chapters, which are told from Blanche’s point of view, in which we find out that she murdered not only her husband, but also her father and a midwife. This is all tied in with Minou’s secret, and Blanche is determined to find Minou and have her killed. Also, as it turns out, Blanche and Vidal are having an affair, and she is pregnant with his child.
When Catholics attack a Huguenot funeral procession in Toulouse, the fighting turns into a massacre, in which many civilians, including women and children, are killed. Piet saves Minou’s life and takes her to the Huguenot almshouse that he helps to run. The two of them can no longer deny their feelings for each other, even though they are on opposite sides of the conflict. Piet knows a battle is coming, with even worse carnage, and he arranges to help Minou and her brother to flee the city. He entrusts her with the Shroud of Antioch. Just before the battle is to begin, Minou discovers a Protestant Bible with a document hidden inside: the will that Blanche wants to find. She hides it along with the Shroud of Antioch. But their carriage is stopped at the city gates, and the soldiers recognize Minou because of her one blue eye and one brown eye. They had had orders from Vidal to detain her. She escapes and goes back to the city. But will she and Piet survive the fighting?
The Burning Chambers is a wonderful novel, with beautiful descriptions of the south of France. As readers of Mosse’s other books, including Labyrinth, know, she has a great love of this area of France, and it shows through in her writing. The novel is very suspenseful, even if Mosse gives away Minou’s secret a little too soon. Minou and Piet are very likeable characters, and you want them to survive the battle and be together. Minou, especially, is a strong heroine, courageous and resourceful, and fiercely loyal to those she loves. She is also a very caring person, and tends the wounded Huguenots, even though she is a Catholic. Piet is very courageous as well, and wishes for peace at a time when it seems impossible. As it turns out, his origins are also rather mysterious, and I think this will be explored more in the second book. Even the two villains, Vidal and Blanche, are complex characters with motives that you can understand, while being horrified at the same time by what they’re doing. I also loved some of the secondary characters as well, especially Minou’s aunt, who seems to be under her cruel husband’s thumb at first but turns out to be much stronger than she seems. Minou’s two younger siblings, as well, are brave, resourceful children.
Mosse does a wonderful job at depicting this era of religious conflict, when friends and neighbors turn against each other and no one is safe. The scenes of mob violence are powerful, and if you have read about the wars between the Catholics and the Huguenots, you will know it will only get worse. None of the violence depicted in the book is overly graphic, though. Mosse conveys the horrors of war very well without too many of the gruesome details. The first novel of the series pulls you in, and makes you want to read more about these characters.
The Burning Chambers is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.