In Labyrinth, Kate Mosse tells the story of two courageous women, in two different times, and their efforts to guard a powerful secret against those who would use it for evil. In 2005 (the year the book was published), Alice Tanner, a volunteer at an archaeological dig in the south of France, stumbles into a cave and discovers two skeletons and some strange carvings in the pattern of a labyrinth on the wall. She falls into a trance-like state and has visions of a past life. When she recovers, a ring that she found, also with a labyrinth pattern on it, disappears. Then her best friend, who invited her to the archaeological dig, goes missing. Alice realizes that the labyrinth holds the key to a secret, and that a rich, powerful woman, Marie-Cécile de l'Oradore, is also after it. With the help of historian and former World War II resistance fighter Audric Baillard, Alice learns the nature of the secret. But will she be able to stop Marie-Cécile and rescue her friend?
In 1209, Alaïs, a 17-year-old herbalist and healer, newly married to a knight, is living in Carcassonne, the home of a Christian sect known as the Cathars. The Catholic Church has declared them heretical and sent an army of Crusaders against them. Alaïs' father, the steward of the castle, is the guardian of one of three manuscripts which, once they are united, give the key to the location of the Holy Grail. Each guardian wears a ring with a labyrinth pattern. (Of course, the ring that Alice finds in 2005 is one of these.) As Carcassonne faces a siege by the Crusaders, Alaïs' father entrusts the manuscript to her, so she can get it out of the city and find the other two guardians, so the three manuscripts can be reunited. But Alaïs' evil sister Oriane, who is having an affair with her husband, also wants the ring and the manuscript, and she is willing to collaborate with the Crusading army to get them.
On the surface, the plot of Labyrinth is similar to The Da Vinci Code, but in my opinion Labyrinth is a much better book. Mosse's writing is better than Dan Brown's, and her characters are more fully developed. If there is any book it reminds me of, it is Katherine Neville's The Eight, one of my favorite books of all time. Like The Eight, Labyrinth contains two story lines, one set in the past and one in the present (or near-present), and both are equally compelling. Both involve a quest for a secret of immense power. I especially loved Mosse's detailed descriptions of the south of France, and Carcassonne in particular, in both the past and present. Carcassonne is a medieval walled city, whose fortifications are remarkably well-preserved. Mosse made me want to go there. Also, Mosse writes powerfully of the traditions of the Cathars, and their persecution at the hands of the Crusaders.
Some have called Labyrinth a fantasy, but the main fantasy elements are Alice's visions, which may hint at time travel or reincarnation. Since the Cathars believed in reincarnation, this is entirely appropriate. There is one other fantasy element, but to say what it is would spoil the ending. I would call the book a quest novel or an archaeological mystery. Labyrinth contains some brief passages in French, which have not been translated, and in Occitan, the language of the south of France during the Middle Ages. Occitan, or a linguistic descendant of it, is still spoken today, but it is dying out. Mosse includes a glossary of Occitan terms, which is very useful, at the end of the book. Since I can read French, I had no problem with the French passages, but some readers who do not know French have had a hard time with them. But these are very brief, and it does not detract from the story if you cannot understand them. Labyrinth is the first in a trilogy which also includes Sepulchre and Citadel. I have not read the other two books, but I definitely intend to. I gather that the heroines in the sequels are not the same, and the setting for the historical story line is different, but the sequels have characters in common, including one of my favorite characters from Labyrinth, Audric Baillard. I hope I enjoy them as much as Labyrinth.
Labyrinth is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library and the Browsing Collection of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.