The City of Tears
By Kate Mosse
Pan Macmillan, UK
ISBN: 978-1509806898
560pp.

Although The City of Tears is British historical novelist Kate Mosse’s second book in her Burning Chambers planned trilogy, and refers to the action of the first book, it also easily acts as a standalone text.

Having previously read her novels The Winter Ghosts and The Taxidermist’s Daughter, I’m pleased to state that Mosse avoids the trap of complacently resting on her laurels, for the new book is every bit as well-researched and meticulously crafted as her earlier works.

The novel’s action alternates primarily between France and Holland — mainly Amsterdam — in the 16th century, although there is a brief South Africa-based interlude, set in the 19th century, at the very commencement.

The story begins with an intensely suspenseful moment: a senior Dutch nun of the Beguine order is pushed into the canals of Amsterdam in a sinister manner and drowns.

Kate Mosse avoids the trap of complacently resting on her laurels, for her latest historical novel is every bit as well-researched and meticulously crafted as her earlier works

As the reader speculates why this might be so, we’re taken to a French monastery where a haughty-looking Catholic cardinal named Vidal — reminiscent of the clerics in French writer Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame — locates and subsequently adopts a boy of about 10, who resembles him enough to pass as his son.

The narrative then shifts to a countryside chateau in Renaissance France where the main characters, married couple Piet Reydon and Minou Joubert, are happily raising their two children — eight-year-old Marta and baby Jean Jacques — in an idyllic, joint family setting.

However, an undercurrent of dangers lies beneath the blissful nature of Piet and Minou’s existence: in a country where Huguenot Protestants are determinedly at odds with Catholic factions dominated by the powerful French queen, Catherine de Medici, their chateau serves as a bastion of safety for Protestant activity.

Minou’s brother Aimeric acts as a spy for the political aspects of the Protestant cause, often making fraught and dangerous trips to Paris and, much to Minou’s dismay, her sister Alis is seriously wounded by an assassin’s bullet that was actually meant for Minou.

After nursing Alis back to health, Minou leaves for Paris with Piet, her children and her aged aunt to attend the wedding of Queen Catherine’s daughter Marguerite ‘Margot’ de Valois to Henri of Navarre, whose mother dies a few days before the wedding, allegedly poisoned by Queen Catherine through a deadly pair of gloves.

I must briefly digress here to provide some background on this formidable queen. Catherine was married off at the age of 12 to Henry II of France, who was the same age. Although they eventually produced children, the couple’s early years were tense since Henry II was far more sexually compatible with his more experienced mistress, Diane de Poitiers.

After the king’s death in a jousting accident, Catherine determinedly rose to power in her own right. She saw the political expediency of marrying her daughter into the Protestant Navarre family, but was no friend to the non-Catholic cause and encouraged the Duke of Guise to pursue his vendetta against Henri of Navarre and all that the latter stood for.

The story begins with an intensely suspenseful moment: a senior Dutch nun of the Beguine order is pushed into the canals of Amsterdam in a sinister manner and drowns.

Catherine was feared even by her own children; in the novel’s only scene between her and Margot, the latter wonders if her mother would go so far as to poison her for her own obscure and nefarious ends.

This macro-level of political tension finds a micro-level counterpart in the main story. For instance, there is enmity between Guise and Admiral de Coligny, the man Guise holds responsible for his father’s death. Also, Vidal — Guise’s priest and confessor — is noted to have persecuted Piet in the past, although as boys they were friends growing up together.

The royal wedding takes place with all the finery and opulence that the crowd expects and Margot looks especially lovely in blue velvet decorated with the French fleur de lis. A few days later, though, unrest between the religious factions comes to a head in an incident that would become famous in history as the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, when several Protestants were brutally killed by Guise’s men, allegedly under the orders of Queen Catherine.

Minou’s family escapes, but not unscathed. She, Piet and baby Jean Jacques flee to Amsterdam on friendly Dutch nun Cornelia’s barge, but their spirited and adventurous daughter Marta is lost in the fray. Through a quirk of fate, Marta is locked in a room by Vidal’s young son, Louis, before he flees Paris with his father. This saves Marta’s life, although depriving her of her family for several years.

During the 16th century, Amsterdam was the only major Catholic stronghold in Holland, a predominantly Protestant country. Minou and Piet begin to lead a safer life in the city despite belonging to a religious minority. However, strife breaks out again in the form of Dutch Calvinist unrest, whereby this strongly Protestant faction replaces many Catholic government officials in Amsterdam.

Piet is still able to keep his family safe, especially since Cornelia and her father go out of their way to protect the Reydons. A dozen years pass and, in the chapters where the plot switches to France, we are told that Cardinal Vidal and Louis are now based in Chartres.

It transpires that Vidal is a collector of sacred relics, such as pieces of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified, pieces of the Virgin Mary’s robes, etc. Coldly amoral in spite of his religious calling, he often does not hesitate to acquire these relics by criminal means.

The plot thickens when a young woman arrives at his abode claiming to have a piece of St Veronica’s veil — used to wipe sweat from Christ’s brow as he stumbled under the weight of carrying his cross — for sale.

The reader realises that the young woman is none other than Minou’s lost daughter since, like her mother, Marta has heterochromatic eyes — one blue, the other brown. By this point, however, Marta has lost most of her childhood memories.

Much to Vidal’s surprise and glee, Piet and Minou also arrive on the scene, having received news that a woman who might well be their daughter can be found in Chartres. Much fast-paced action ensues, with a relatively happy ending for Minou in store as well as for Henri of Navarre, whose coronation is attended by Catholics and Protestants alike.

Mosse constructs a fictional and dramatic, but thoroughly credible, version of historical events, bringing into play her sound knowledge of locations, weapons, clothing and buildings, not to mention the complex intricacies of Renaissance French history itself.

She has the fine historical novelist’s rare gift of being able to immerse readers in a carefully constructed literary milieu that feels remarkably authentic. It is a credit to the author’s skill that one does not need too much knowledge of the period’s history in order to enjoy the story, for ultimately it is the characters that carry the day.

For those who have not read The Burning Chambers, this second book in the series will certainly intrigue them enough to give its prequel some attention, while also making the reader look forward in excited anticipation to the trilogy’s concluding volume.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 16th, 2022

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