‘The Burning Chambers’ by Kate Mosse

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.

The Sound of Silence

He hadn’t spoken for four years, nine months and two days. A journalist arranged a meeting (via email) to find out the reason for his silence.

“Why aren’t you talking?” she probed.

He took a sip of water, then looked at the ground.

“I’ve got nothing to say” he croaked.

Submit to Briefly Zine

Briefly Zine is a literary webzine for bold, succinct writing.

We love profound ideas, stories with a twist and writing that moves us. Quality beats quantity: make every word count.

We take submissions all year round and publish quarterly. Upcoming issues will be released in March and June 2021.


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‘The House at the End of Hope Street’ by Menna van Praag

Living rent-free in Cambridge for 99 days really would be magical.

Menna van Praag’s debut novel is an easy read: a heart-warming story about three dejected women who find hope in a magical house.

But the plot is far more nuanced than it might first seem. The various narrative strands are intricate and are interwoven effectively through regularly shifting viewpoints. Moreover, the characters are all vivid and complex, which makes their actions and reactions believable.

The fantastical elements are successfully integrated into the story. This is particularly the case with Alba’s ability to see the colours of words, a lovely idea that allows van Praag to paint some beautiful dialogue scenes.

Peggy, the “Fairy Godmother” of Hope Street, is an interesting character. Her personal intrigue highlights how those who devote their lives to others are at times the ones most in need of a helping hand.

The only thing that tempered my enjoyment of the novel was the number of typographical errors it contained. For a book that celebrates the beauty of writing, I found that the style didn’t always live up to these high aspirations. In fairness, this became less of an issue as the story progressed, which is testament to the powerful narratives.

This charming tale is surprisingly compelling. A much-needed distraction in dark times.