Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Wednesday, April 24, 2019: Maximum Shelf: The Burning Chambers

Minotaur Books: The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

Minotaur Books: The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

Minotaur Books: The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

Minotaur Books: The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

The Burning Chambers

by Kate Mosse

The Burning Chambers is an epic novel of the French Wars of Religion, packed with historical detail in richly textured stories of love, family, betrayal, faith and war.

The first in a planned four-part series, the novel opens with a prologue set in South Africa in 1862--a nod to the eventual 300-year story arc that author Kate Mosse  plans for the series. But after this brief tease, the rest of The Burning Chambers remains squarely stationed in the late 16th century, starting in the very early days of the violent battles between the Huguenots (French Protestants) and Catholics that wracked France from 1562 to 1598. In the small town of Carcassone, Minou, the daughter of a Catholic bookseller, works to keep her family afloat as her father grieves the loss of his beloved wife. At the same time, the Protestant Piet Reydon finds himself in Carcassone to deliver a stolen relic to fellow Huguenot revolutionaries. Piet's path crosses with that of his one-time friend, now a powerful Catholic priest in the nearby city of Toulouse, and then with Minou's, setting off a series of events that is both labyrinthine and expertly plotted. Amidst these comings and goings and encounters, diary entries from an unnamed woman suggest there is more than just a relic missing--there is a will and an inheritance at stake. And though it is unclear whose will, and who is set to inherit, and what, exactly, is set to be inherited, it is clear that the diary's owner will not rest until the will--and any potential inheritor--have been buried once and for all. After all, "old crimes cast long shadows..."--as do old secrets.

The Burning Chambers is epic in every sense of the word: it is both long, weighing in at more than 600 pages, and dense, filled with dozens of characters, intersecting storylines and multiple locations. A list of family names and locations, a detailed historical map and an author's note about the historical background of the Wars of Religion provide context for the incredible amount of information to come, but Mosse (Labyrinth, The Taxidermist’s Daughter) never falls victim to the trap of too much detail. In her capable hands, the novel moves along at a rapid pace, loyal to the historical detail of actual events without getting lost in the annals of history.

This is a hard balance to strike in any work of historical fiction, but when done right, it is a wonder to behold. The result is a novel that re-creates a moment and place in time--in this case, 1562 in the southwest of France--while also speaking to the universal experience of humans in times of great strife and upheaval. What is right and what is wrong in such a time? How does one press forward without knowing what the next day holds? And what of love, and family, and belonging amidst an ever-changing landscape rife with violence, torture and betrayals? What does it mean to be faithful, and what does it mean to act in the name of that faith? In light of thousands dying, how do we remember to value the life of each individual on his or her own merits?

These are big, timeless questions, all of which Mosse explores through the everyday lives of everyday people. Minou visits her father's bookshop; her aunt prays in the family chapel; her 13-year-old brother gets up to no good in the way only 13-year-old boys can. Piet holds whispered meetings with other Huguenots; a tailor is tortured to death for information; a woman lures a man of power into her bed. On their own, none of these events are remarkable, but as Mosse weaves them together, they become the fabric of a larger story that clips along at a steady pace toward a startling, violent finish.

Though The Burning Chambers begins a planned series, the novel itself stands on its own; Mosse has wrapped up the tale of these particular characters neatly enough to be satisfying, while leaving enough open ends to continue their tale into the future. Reflecting on an old tale her mother once told her of the siege of Carcassone in the times of the Cathars, Minou wonders to herself, "How was it that, in more than three hundred and fifty years, so little had changed? So much suffering, such waste and cruelty. And for what?" Though readers will have to wait for The City of Tears to be released to find out for certain, it's fair to expect that we may all be asking ourselves this same question as the rest of Mosse's incredible series unfolds. --Kerry McHugh

Minotaur Books, $27.99, hardcover, 608p., 9781250202161, June 18, 2019

Minotaur Books: The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

Kate Mosse: Extraordinary Historical Fiction Featuring Ordinary People

 (photo: Ruth Crafter)

Kate Mosse is the author of eight novels and short story collections, including Labyrinth, the first in the bestselling Languedoc Trilogy, and The Taxidermist's Daughter. Her latest novel, The Burning Chambers (available June 18, 2019), is the first in a planned quartet from Minotaur Books that spans a 300-year history of the Huguenots, starting with the early days of the Wars of Religion in 16th-century France. Mosse is the co-founder of the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, and she divides her time between Chichester in West Sussex and Carcassone in the southwest of France.

The Burning Chambers is the first in a planned quartet, which is not a structure you see very often in planned novels. Why four?

I knew straight away that the book was going to finish in South Africa in the 19th century. But then I also knew that to get there, I needed to go back to the beginning of the story, which is the eve of the Wars of Religion starting in France in the 16th century. I planned an epic saga, a Romeo-and-Juliet-type story, with one Catholic family and one Huguenot (or French Protestant) family. There would be a missing will, a missing relic, a missing inheritance and a feud between these two families for 300 years. So I had the shape of the big story I wanted to tell, but I needed four books to fill that time period with a reasonable length of peoples' lives in order to get from the first generation to their descendants standing in a graveyard in Franschhoek, South Africa, in 1862.

The prologue to The Burning Chambers features one of those descendants in that same graveyard in 1862. Does that mean you had the prologue--which is also, it sounds like, the ending of the quartet--planned before you started?

I was at a literary festival in South Africa, in the town of Franschhoek, a beautiful town in the wine district of South Africa. As I was being driven towards the town, I noticed a sign with the word "Languedoc," which is the region of France that I write about. It just blew my mind. I couldn't understand why this sign was here on the other side of the world. As we got nearer, I saw that all of the names of the vineyards were French names and, in town, the main street was called Huguenot Street. And at that moment, it was like a chill went down my spine; I needed to know what the story was, what was behind this French connection to South Africa. 

I went to the local museum and learned the most extraordinary bit of history. The people of the Dutch East India Company realized the land was the same as the land in the southwest of France, so invited any French Protestant refugees in Amsterdam who were winemakers to come to South Africa. Seven families sailed, and that is in part how the South African wine industry started.

Then, I went out to the Huguenot graveyard outside the museum, looked up at the amazing Franschhoek Mountains, and they looked exactly like the mountains of my beloved part of France. And at that moment, I suddenly had an image of a girl standing in a graveyard, in Franschhoek, in 1862, having carried the story of her family and their flight from persecution and their journey all over the world. I knew how I could tell the story of Huguenots, through women telling their stories going back generations.

And then of course it was years of research and getting the real history sorted, but it started in that graveyard. I don't decide to write about something. There's something that taps me on the shoulder; it's like a whispering in the landscape.

What went into your years of research for this book?

I divide my research into two types, and both are essential. The first is the book-learning research: in the archives, in museums, in libraries, reading all the texts. Investigating particular moments in the Wars of Religion. You have to know all of the history before you know what matters and what doesn't.

Once I've done that, I do foot research, as I call it. We've had a little house in Carcassone, in the southwest of France, for 30 years now. When I'm writing I go there for five days of every month to reconnect with the landscape. I have to have all of the research in my files: maps, photographs, detail, all of that. But the real emotional heart of the story begins as I walk the streets, and climb the mountains, and watch the sun go down, and I see the history in the place itself.

The Burning Chambers is rich with this historical detail, but it's also very much about everyday people.

I feel very strongly that historical fiction helps us stand in other peoples' shoes. It helps us to deal with really strong emotions that maybe, when we're reading about them in the contemporary world, are just too hard to face. But with the benefit of hindsight, and with the benefit of history, sometimes we can engage with all those very strong emotions: love, envy, war, faith.

Peoples' circumstances change from generation to generation. Peoples' opportunities, what they think is appropriate or right, what they believe. But the human heart doesn't change very much. This is what drives my writing.

For me, I want people to fall in love with the history of the Huguenots, and to admire them. I want people to fall in love with my characters, to understand what happens to them, to really feel what they feel when their world is under threat, when war destroys everything they know. That's the true history. It's those forces of history that dominate our lives now. 

Readers will bring everything that's happening in the world around them when they sit down to read The Burning Chambers. I think that's one of the things that is so powerful about historical fiction. We read it in the contemporary time, but we're reading about a different period of time. The emotions, though, are the same.

Do you think that's why we've seen such a surge in popularity of historical fiction books of late?

Yes. I think it's also part of people seeing how, in many countries now, we have enormous advantages compared to the people of the past, particularly in terms of health and vaccines and opportunity. Given that, why don't things feel better? We go back to the past to try and find what happened, because everything that's gone before influences what's happening now.

A lot of people don't want to read a history book about the Wars of Religion in France, for a whole lot of reasons. But forging that human connection between characters and our own selves makes it much more pleasant--and pleasurable. We're always interested in other people. --Kerry McHugh

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