Kate Mosse's The Burning Chambers review: Priestly plots and happy endings
The Burning Chambers opens in 1862 with a woman in a South African graveyard who has travelled through France and across “the wildest seas” on the trail of “the story of two families and a secret passed down from generation to generation”.
She carries an antique Bible, a journal stuffed with letters and hand-drawn maps and, most importantly, a will that hints at a mysterious inheritance.
It’s an intriguing opening, setting the scene for “a sequence of novels set against the backdrop of 300 years of history from 16th-century France to 19th-century South Africa”.
The bulk of this first novel (it’s 570 pages long) takes place in France, 1562, and tells the story of the Jouberts, a Huguenot family, ancestors of the woman in the graveyard.
Minou Joubert is a spirited, courageous 19- year-old with odd eyes, one blue, the other green, who receives an unsettling note while working in her father’s bookshop.
It’s pushed under the door, sealed with a distinctive crest and reads simply: “She knows that you live.”
Minou has no idea what the note means and it is temporarily forgotten in the general uproar of the times.
The ruling Catholics are making life extremely difficult for the Protestant Huguenots, there is a spate of politically motivated killings and rumours of torture (there are some stomach-turning descriptions of barbaric techniques).
Kate Mosse adds a liberal dash of romance to Minou’s life in the shape of the dashing Piet Reydon, a young Huguenot with rusty red hair and a fervent desire for “all men to be allowed to live as they choose within the law. Not to have every waking minute of every day determined by one’s faith”.
But it’s a tough ask in a country about to be torn apart by the “wars of religion”.
There is also a long-held family secret connected to that mysterious note and when Minou later relays its contents to her father, he immediately grasps its meaning.
As he realises that Minou is in grave danger, she and her rapscallion brother are sent away.
The plot is wild, wicked and multi-stranded, packed full of incident, intrigue and conspiracy.
Piet is on a secretive mission and there is a host of characters to keep track of, including a dithery aunt, a spy, the corrupt priest Valentin and his warped, beautiful paramour, the Lady Blanche.
There’s a little too much explanation of religious matters and the writing can be a little prosaic but The Burning Chambers is still a cracking, compelling read.
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