Gripping plot. Fast-paced action. Lifelike characters. So what’s missing?
The Burning Chambers is an epic adventure that takes the reader to the heart of sixteenth-century France, a country in turmoil amidst the bloody Wars of Religion. Set primarily across three southern cities — Carcassonne, Toulouse and Puivert — the historical backdrop is painted vividly, showcasing the author’s extensive historical research and interest in her subject.
Mosse manages to convey the fear and uncertainty of a country ravaged by years of infighting by creating believable characters that bring the history to life. Particularly strong are her portraits of Vidal, a power-hungry Catholic priest, and his deranged mistress, Lady Bruyère.
At times, however, these characters can tip over into types. The formulaic, rather predictable plot is constructed along starkly divided oppositional lines and each character is included to fill a particular role. Moreover, in the closing scenes, Mosse relies a little too readily on unlikely coincidences to advance the plot to its dramatic denouement. This diminishes some of the vraisemblance she had earlier developed.
If I may allow myself to offer a piece of writing advice to an international bestselling author whose novels have been translated into thirty-seven languages, it is that she often overuses rhetorical questions. This becomes more noticeable as the story progresses. Presumably, Mosse’s intention in doing so is to increase the suspense, but this is not the effect: the constant questions frustrate the reader and slow our progress.
It is this sort of contrived technique that raises our awareness of the book’s formulaic structure and ultimately stops the reader from fully engaging with the text. Of course, all books are artificially constructed, but the best ones are those that are able to hide this and make you forget you are reading. The Burning Chambers doesn’t achieve this because the plot follows a predictable pattern and is engineered to progress through a series of unbelievable coincidences.
Despite these minor grievances, The Burning Chambers is a lively and addictive historical novel. It won’t be your book of the year, but is well worth a read.