Review: ‘The Lake of Learning’ by Rose and Berry

The Lake of Learning (Cassiopeia Vitt Adventure, #3)The Lake of Learning by Steve Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novella, and “The Museum of Mysteries,” represent everything a good novella should provide for readers: strong characters, mysterious stories based on heavily researched history, conflicts that are not easy to resolve, and a compelling storyline that leaves the reader wishing the book went another 500 pages farther than it did.

This story focusses on the Cathar religion, a system of beliefs that the Catholic church considered heretical and then killed the adherents in a crusade launched in 1209 and later during the inquisition. However, Cathars still exist today, and it’s about them–and the discovery of an old Cathar book of hours–that’s the focus of this story.

An old book is found on a construction site, and suddenly opposing Papist and Cathar individuals insert themselves into the story, creating a dangerous game for the protagonist Cassiopeia Vitt. Old conflicts die hard, it seems, as those who believe and those who don’t believe put Vitt’s life, wealth, and company in danger.

Books like this not only have compelling stories but teach readers a lot about the subject matter. In this case, the authors’ note at the end of the book what separates fact from fiction so that readers can see what’s true, what’s imaginary (but possible), and where to follow the historical record for themselves.

The characters in this novel (both the ones you like the and the ones you don’t like) not only have great depth to them, but they’re experts in their fields and savvy about everything that surrounds their areas of interest. If you have an interest in the Cathars, you will enjoy this novella. But even if you don’t, the fascination of a well-told tale will keep you reading.

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Review: ‘Labyrinth’ by Kate Mosse

Labyrinth (Languedoc Trilogy, #1)Labyrinth by Kate Mosse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kate Mosse’s engaging and well-researched novel Labyrinth (2006) brings readers another version of the Holy Grail and those who would protect it, seek it, destroy it and use it. Labyrinth joins Khoury’s The Last Templar (2006) and The Templar Salvation (2010) and Neville’s The Eight (1997) and The Fire (2008) in its presentation of a religious secrets story that switches back and forth between time periods and characters.

Set in thirteenth-century Languedoc and twenty-first century southern France, Labyrinth presents readers with medieval and modern characters who are searching for the Grail with good and bad motives. Alaïs du Mas, the daughter of the steward of historical character Raymond-Roger Trencavel in Carcassona, resides in a world where Cathars and Catholics live in harmony with each other. Alice Tanner, a professor of English literature in Sussex, is a volunteer in an archeological dig in the Sabarthès mountains in France in 2005.

The lives of these dual protagonists—and the characters around them—become intertwined across history when Alice inadvertently discovers some of the Grail secrets Alaïs dedicated her life to protect. Alaïs’ world is under attack by a Crusade and subsequent inquisition ordered by Pope Innocent III in 1208 against the Cathars who were viewed by Rome as a heretical sect. Alice’s world is that of a modern police investigation into deaths and thefts linking a mainstream archeological dig with a shadowy world of those who follow or oppose the Grail.

The mirror aspects of the characters’ lives across the centuries serves Mosse and her plot well. Unlike Dan Brown, who viewed the Grail as Mary Magdalene and Arthurian literature that viewed the Grail as a sacred chalice, Mosse presents instead the secret artifacts which are intended to lead true seekers through both a real and a figurative labyrinth to the Grail as a transcendent experience.

With the exception of a slow beginning and a few sections where the detail in both the modern and medieval worlds becomes more history and travelogue than a novel, Labyrinth is a well-told story. The novel’s discussion guide notes that the book begins with short glimpses of the leading characters without any narrative to tie them together or explain their motives, and then asks “what effect does this have on you, as a reader?” It’s a good question. Some readers will find it slow and unnecessarily obscuring of the story, while others will find that it heightens the intrigue and suspense.

For readers who want to know more about the life and times of the Cathars, Mosse includes a historical note, a selected bibliography, information about the langue d’Oc spoken in Alaïs’ world as well as a glossary of Occitan words.

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Copyright (c) 2011 by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of two hero’s journey novels,The Sun Singer and Garden of Heaven.