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So having become thoroughly engrossed in both Labyrinth and Sepulchre, I finally come to review the final book in Kate Mosse's 'Landguedoc Trilogy' - Citadel.
People originally taken with Labyrinth did in some cases turn slightly on Sepulchre and point out that the story structure was basically identical - strong historical woman becomes embroiled in mystical or religious matters whilst their struggle is mirrored by that of a steadfast, intelligent modern woman who reflects their brave and just character. So would Citadel, now available in paperback, be any different? Would Mosse buck the trend and break with a strategy that has seen her become a massively successful author and even inspired one epic (epically disappointing, more like) sprawling four-hour TV adaptation?
Having illustrated the background of English author Kate Mosse in my Labyrinth review, I won't repeat myself here and bore you. But suffice to say, her fans had awaited Citadel with bated breath.
The premise for this instalment, the last Languedoc historical tome, features not a modern-day heroine but one whose story plays out during World War II; Sandrine Vidal, a young girl we meet on the cusp of womanhood, a journey that we follow with her as events outside of her control shape both her life and her destiny.
Sandrine becomes awakened to realities that her sister had previously sheltered her from when she comes across the floating shape of a man in the river outside Carcassonne; readers of Labyrinth will see the immediate connection. Laziness or plot device? You can make your own conclusions, as have I.
Upon rescuing the man, still clinging to life, Sandrine is attacked and wakes on the shore of the river hearing the voice of another man who has in turn saved her - a man who she never sees but cannot forget. Then her friends, Lucie and her Jewish-American boyfriend Max, come across the scene and drive her home - insisting that she is imagining things and shouldn't talk to the police. The first man is saved and she is home - it is not the time to be drawing attention to yourself or others, with the threat of war and the watchful eyes not only in the establishment and authorities but also behind the twitching curtains of your own neighbours.
Meanwhile we are introduced to a monk in ancient times who is undertaking a religious task that he believes to be of huge importance to the future of humanity. He carries hidden upon his person an ancient text which he believes has a power that must both be guarded and hidden but never lost.
We see the impetuousness of Sandrine's youth as she makes her own decision about how to deal with the events that she became a part of, and how that impetuousness leads her to a startling awareness not only of the realities of life and war but also the actions and bravery of those closest to her - and she soon realises that it is her duty to act in the name of freedom and her country, her fellow people. And as this plays out, we also see the growing threat that she must ultimately evade or face. Yet her story is not just one of duty in the face of the horrors of war but also that of a young girl becoming a woman, falling in love and accepting the responsibilities of family and friendship.
What ties the two stories are a familiar character to readers of the previous books in the trilogy, and the power of the text carried so bravely by a lone monk so very long ago, and the huge impact it could yet have on the future.
Well first off let me tell you, this is a heck of a book. I mean that in the sense of longevity - in order to pack all the 1000-odd pages (not to mention additional references and documentation on Carcassonne by its biggest fan, Mosse) into paperback form, the production house had to use the thinnest pages I have ever seen in a book - you can be reading this for hours and it seems that you haven't even made a dent.
But you will be reading it for hours. I personally don't go for fictional stories linked to World War II; first of all I prefer my historical escapism to be more dated, secondly the horrors of the period are still too real to be linked to the pleasurable experience of reading. Yes I watched Schindler's List and yes I thought it was an amazing film, but I most certainly haven't watched it again since. I'm someone who believes firmly that any country - any - that still uses the death penalty has no right to call themselves part of the educated modern world, so you can imagine how the truly horrific era of WWII sits with me.
However, despite being disappointed to see that this book has that as the "modern" story setting, I am glad that I read it. I can't really compare that aspect of it to other similar novels, but I think that Mosse did a fare effort of sticking to her own story rather than trying to leech off of the terrible events to add further horror to her tale; the events were alluded to from the perspective of people living through the era; for example those who know someone who had been sent to a camp display the frustration and confusion of knowing nothing, the staunch bravery of trying not to lose face when hearing rumours and gossip of what may or may not have happened. I think it is the most sensitive way this could be dealt with, and it allows the human, character-driven individual story to work well on its own as opposed to being a mechanism to exploit the horrors of war.
The historical tale is much less prominent in this book; there is far more time spent in the era with Sandrine and those she works and lives with.
The characters are not flawless in my opinion; the "good guys" seem almost too perfect, and when one is tried as a plot device to illustrate that they too had weaknesses, their actions were quickly forgiven. This is a romantically told story, and whilst the actions of the characters are those of bravery, it lacks realism. But I mean this in reference to the human element, where as there is of course an overriding religious and spiritual aspect of which frankly I think it is up to the individual to assess according to their personal beliefs and / or fictional leanings.
But Mosse's writing style is there, illustrative yet readable and engrossing. Her characterisation is good enough; I still consider Labyrinth her best work, but this is probably superior to Sepulchre. The conclusion will probably split opinion. As will the question of whether this is fundamentally a love story, or something more. As the former, it is effective enough, and the reader is obviously not too hard pressed to support the protagonists, not just because of the historical event in question but also because of the skill of the storytelling.
All this said, for me it was lacking something. I can't quite say what, perhaps it simply comes down to taste. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it but the truth is that there was a tiny degree of wanting to finish it so that I could move on to something that I was desperate to read.
Would I read it again? Yes, but would have to be committed to the task as it is an epic. There would have to be very little in the "to read" stack before I undertook it, and it would probably be a case of being determined to re-read the entire trilogy back-to-back instead of being inspired to read it as a stand-alone offering. Were it a tale on its own, without the repeated character and historical family links to the previous two books, I'm not sure that I would have picked it up at all, let alone read it again. But I'm glad that I have and I think that it is a fitting end to the trilogy in which it plays a very important part.