The Rose Labyrinth came out around the time that books like The Da Vinci Code were mega popular and touches on many of the same themes: hidden religious secrets and power struggles across the centuries. It had passed me by for over five years since publication. All I can say is that I rue the day when my ignorance ended and I made the mistake of buying a copy.
In 1609, shortly before his death, John Dee, astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I hid some secrets that he deemed too dangerous to reveal in the political and religious climate of the time. Fast forward over 300 years and a small group of people, brought together in unlikely circumstances, realise that they are the ones destined to uncover the secrets and reveal them to the world.
It sounds interesting, doesn't it? Exactly the sort of book that you might enjoy reading after a hard day at work, with a strong plot, full of interesting ideas, startling revelations and action. And you certainly can't fault author Titania Hardie's ambition. She throws everything she can possibly think of into the plot: religion, mysticism, feminism, literature, Greek and Roman mythology, historical events. You name it; she probably includes it. The trouble is, this smacks of the worst kind of self-indulgence. The plot appears to be just a random collections of historical facts and random speculations, with no coherent thread connecting them. It's a mess. There is a sense that all this stuff is being included not because it fits the plot, but because Hardie wants to show every one how jolly clever she is.
With no coherent plot, the book founders early and never recovers. Puzzles seem to appear from nowhere. The actual text of some is not even included in the main text, but as supplementary material at the end of the novel. As such, characters often start talking about something that you know nothing (or very little) about, finding answers to puzzles you didn't even know existed. Or they seem to pluck solutions out of nowhere. For no logical reason I could discern, midway through the book, the characters suddenly decided that the number 34 was of major significance, and started working out the 34th word or 34th letter of some text that you hadn't even seen because it was hidden away at the end of the book. You keep reading in the hope that it will get better but, after 550 pages of self-indulgent drivel, it just fizzles out with barely a whimper.
As if to really rub your face in it, in the post-script Hardie invites you to find a hidden message saying "See if you can find it, even if they characters didn't". Oh come on! Your job as an author is to lay out the puzzles, weave them into the plot and have your characters solve them. By all means, challenge the reader to work them out before your characters do, but it's your responsibility as the author to tie up the loose ends and present the answers. If you don't care enough about your book to do this, why should the reader?
The characters are no better than the plot and I never warmed to a single one. It got to the point where I didn't care whether they lived or died, and a few of them I grew to actively dislike. Like the author herself, they are incredibly pretentious, making constant references to the Classics, poetry and major works of art or literature. I consider myself a reasonably well-educated little monkey, but I certainly don't have contrived conversations like this with my friends or family , I can't imagine that many people do. These characters don't talk like normal people - they talk like they are sitting in a university seminar studying for an English literature degree (perhaps betraying that Hardie was doing just that when she wrote this).
Hardie seems to be operating under the mistaken idea that she is some kind of master storyteller (she even has the audacity to draw a parallel between her own book and the writings of Shakespeare!) She is nothing of the sort. She takes an eternity to reveal "surprises" that the average reader will have worked out a long time ago. Hardie's unnecessarily protracted build ups become yet another source of frustration, making the book far longer than it needs to be. To give just one example: I worked something out on about page 40; Hardie finally "revealed" this to the reader on about page 200.
It's clear that a lot of time and effort has gone into The Rose Labyrinth and I really don't like doing a hatchet job on it, but that's honestly what the book deserves. It's trite, pretentious, slow and uninteresting. It is, sadly, one of those books which should never have been printed (at least not in its current bloated state).
Costing an eye-popping £6.50 for a new paperback (it can be found cheaper) and £5 on Kindle, this is one occasion where I'd firmly recommend keeping your money in your pocket.
The Rose Labyrinth
Headline Review, 2008
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013
I have been a great fan of all things 'Da Vinci Code'-like for a few years now, and have been interested at the possibility of controversial history being hidden all around us. So, when I was bought The Rose Labyrinth for Christmas, I was quite excited at the prospect of reading it. It promised to take me on a voyage of literary and historical discovery, and I was quite sure that its length (over 500 pages) was going to prove to be a good thing rather than a drawn out nuisance.
And to start with, I was right, as Hardie took us on an adventure with Will Stafford, firmly his mother's son, as he takes a trip to the south of France to his family's home, not long after his mother's death, and sets the scene for us as the possibility of a centuries' past ancestor of theirs may have hidden secrets beholden only to himself and the Queen at the time. Conspiracy is the name of the game as Will's brother Alex takes up the journey of discovery, aided by heart transplant patient Lucy, who swiftly becomes the heroine of the piece.
Together with Will's friend Simon and ex-girlfriend Sian, Alex and Lucy embark on a dangerous journey involving links to the past, where impossible predictions come true. They are forced on their journey by some villains who also want to discover a possible wealth lying somewhere, for in the 16th Century, John Dee hid valuable secrets, trusting that his descendants would one day reveal them, when the time was right. But the wrong people have been following the Staffords, and are keen to get their hands on Dee's secrets. For Alex and his friends, it becomes a matter of life and death as they are blackmailed and bribed as well as physically threatened to find the truth and reveal the secret. The only problem is, they don't know how!
What Hardie does very well is in describing the journey the heroes and even the villains take on this journey. The action and even the character descriptions take form very easily in the mind, but what I was annoyed at was the never-ending historical analysis of what they were doing. I felt at times that I was being lectured, and although there was a historical necessity to the explanations, they did drag on for pages at a time, completely losing me in abundant detail, and then reverting back to the easy to read action once more.
The author has mixed two differing sorts of script here. One that entertains whilst giving us enough information to interest us in the story, another that is more like texts out of a history - great for historical fact, but not particularly interesting or entertaining in the context of the rest of the story. As a result, I found it extremely hard to enjoy the whole book, and had to keep putting it down from time to time. Overall, I would recommend you read this, but don't worry about getting too bogged down in the detailed historical analysis. Just enjoy the tale.
The Rose Labyrinth is available from amazon.co.uk for £4.89 at the moment. Give it a go, because it is still an interesting and entertaining read, you just have to be in the right frame of mind. The author has clearly done a lot of research into many aspects of the book, and it shows throughout.