July 1209: in Carcassonne a young girl is given a book said to contain the secret of the true Grail. Although Alais cannot understand the strange symbols hidden within, she knows that her destiny lies in protecting the secret of the labyrinth - a secret that stretches back thousands of years to Ancient Egypt....
July 2005: Alice Tanner stumbles upon two skeletons during an archaeological dig outside Carcassonne. Stepping into the tomb, Alice sets in motion a terrifying sequence of events that will lead her to realise that her destiny is inextricably tied up with the fate of the Cathars 800 years before.
Whenever I finish a book I try to choose something completely different genre or subject wise. I always also have more than one book in my handbag so that if I finish one then I can just start the next one, so when I finished Ceremony in Death, the next book in the bag was this one. Now you would think that if you go from a futuristic, police/suspense book to a historical, search for the grail type thriller they would be sufficiently different, but I have to admit that during the first few pages I was most surprised at the similarities.
The book opens with Dr Alice Tanner stumbling into what appears to be an altar that she has found in a cave whilst volunteering on a archeological dig in France. With ancient symbols and letters strategically placed, a couple of artefacts that have a mysterious labyrinth symbol, as well as two skeletons, there was a certain synchronicity regarding the likelihood that the skeletons were linked to some kind of rituals, reflecting some of the themes from Ceremony in Death.
From that point on, the two books parted ways. With two strands of storyline that gradually merged together towards the end of the novel there was a lot going on in this book. The first strand of the story was that of Alais - a newly married young woman who is a healer living in Carcassonne during the early 13th century. It turns out that her father was a keeper of a secret thousands of years old, and chief adviser to Viscount Trencavel. She was living during a dangerous time, when, in the only Crusade to be held on European soil, the French were building up to attack the city of Carcassonne and it's surrounds for it's support and acceptance of the heretical Cathar Christians and Jews. When her father entrusts her with his secret, she becomes guardian of one book of the Labyrinth trilogy, which in turn when all three parts are together, reveals the secret of the Holy Grail. Along the way she must successfully evade danger, both from the marauding Crusaders, and people closer to home, like her own jealous and manipulative sister Oriane. She must also work out whether she can trust the people around her, most especially her husband, Guilhelme.
In the more modern strand of the story, Alice Tanner has discovered a cave filled with symbols, most strikingly a labyrinth. What she doesn't know is that she may have revealed the secret location that has been searched for for years, to enable all three books of the trilogy to come together again, and for the power of the grail to be revealed. As soon as the location is revealed, Alice find herself being chased to obtain the information and the mysterious ring that she may or may not have. Not only are those who want to keep the secret trying to track her down, but also those who want to exploit the power of the Grail for their own purposes. In the end the decisions that Alice makes could very well cause the lives of her friends to be in danger, as well as herself.
Of course, given the type of book that this is, and the fact that it is a Holy Grail type story there have been inevitable comparisons to the Da Vinci Code, but I would think that there really only superficial similarities . Personally, I think that this was a better all round read than DVC, with the characters developed more fully, and more depth to the story. When I read DVC though, I just wanted to devour it in just one sitting, I was hooked so completely into the story. Given that this is a bigger book that was unlikely to happen, but also I was happier to read it over a couple of settings. The hook is still there but the pacing is better, with lots of action in both threads of the story, but time taken to develop the story and background. There was only one point in the novel towards the end where I felt like I was having details told to me as opposed to having them shown to me, but by that time I was so engaged in the story that I just wanted to get the various threads drawn together, and reach the conclusion.
With two strong female primary characters, a touch of magic, mysticism and romance, and a very interesting storyline, this was an entertaining read.
Just as an aside to this my interest was definitely grabbed by the mention of one of the more minor characters in this novel - Simon de Montford. At first, my heart was in my mouth thinking that the noble Simon introduced to me in Sharon Penman's Falls the Shadow was involved in this book, but it turns out that it was his father! Sometimes it can be a bit tricky keeping all these historical figures straight!
The other thing that this book really made me want to do was to go to Carcassonne. Looking at many of the pictures that are available on the net, it seemed that the walled city has been protected and was restored in the 1850's so it is still pretty much as it was, and is now listed in the World Heritage listings. Makes me want to go to France to visit now! Thanks goodness for cyber tourism!
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