Meet The Burning Chambers, the first entrant in a sweeping new historical-fiction saga.
The latest from best-selling author Kate Mosse (The Taxidermist’s Daughter) has already launched in the U.K. to huge popularity and acclaim, and now it’s set for a splashy stateside debut. Kicking off a new series set in 16th-century France, The Burning Chambers will be published in June of next year. Already, such hot authors as Madeline Miller (Circe) and Anthony Horowitz (The Magpie Murders) have chimed in with raves.
“This is historical fiction to devour,” Horowitz says. “Nobody does it like Kate Mosse.”
So what’s all the buzz about? Here’s The Burning Chambers‘ official synopsis: “Nineteen-year-old Minou Joubert receives an anonymous letter at her father’s bookshop. Sealed with a distinctive family crest, it contains just five words: She knows that you live. But before Minou can decipher the mysterious message, a chance encounter with a young Huguenot convert, Piet Reydon, changes her destiny forever. For Piet has a dangerous mission of his own, and he will need Minou’s help if he is to stay alive. As the religious divide deepens, and old friends become enemies, Minou and Piet both find themselves trapped in Toulouse, facing new dangers as tensions ignite across the city. All the while, the shadowy mistress of Puivert Château — obsessed with uncovering the secrets of a long-hidden document — strengthens her power and waits for the perfect time to strike.”
For fans of juicy historical fiction, this one might just develop into their next obsession. To offer a taste, EW can exclusively reveal the book’s engrossing official cover, as well as a first excerpt. Read on below, and pre-order The Burning Chambers ahead of its June 18 release here.
Excerpt from The Burning Chambers, by Kate Mosse
The bells were ringing for eight o’clock as Minou walked under the Porte des Cordeliers and into the Bastide. Some of her earliest memories were of sitting at her mother’s knee, listening to stories of how the two Carcassonnes had come into being: the Roman settlement of Carcasso upon the hill, the swoop of the Visigoths in the fifth century and, seven hundred and fifty years later, the Saracen conquest and the legend of Dame Carcas. Later came the rise and tragic fall of the Trencavel dynasty and the slaughter of the Cathars the young viscount had sought in vain to protect.
‘Without knowing of the mistakes of the past,’ Florence would say, ‘how can we learn not to repeat them? History is our teacher.’
Minou knew every corner, every keystone and doorstop of La Cité, as well as she knew the rhythms of her own heart. How the carillon of the Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire stumbled between the eleventh and twelfth note of the scale. How the vines on the plains below the Porte d’Aude changed colour with the coming of the harvest: from silver to green to crimson. How the winter sun fell upon the graveyard at noon to warm those, like her mother, sleeping in the cold earth.
Minou knew it was her great fortune to have been born in such a place and have the right to call it home. But though she loved their little house in La Cité, she liked the hustle and bustle of the Bastide Saint-Louis more. The citadel was rooted in the past, in thrall to its own history. The lower town, the new Carcassonne, had its sights set on the future.
A wooden hoop wobbled into Minou’s path. She caught it up and handed it back to its owner, a girl with a soot-smutted face and a blue kerchief tied around her neck.
‘Merci,’ the child said, giggling and darting back behind her mother’s skirts.
Minou smiled. She had played such games in these streets, the smooth surface of the lanes of the Bastide so much better for a hoop and stick than the cobbled pathways of La Cité.
Minou carried on up rue Carrière Mage, dodging the mass of carts and ox-drays, dog traps and geese, still thinking about her mother. A memory of herself at eight years old, doing her lessons at the kitchen table in the afternoon. The sun streaming in through the open back door, lighting her slate and chalks. Her mother’s clear voice, patient, turning learning into a wonderful story.
‘The Bastide was founded in the mid thirteenth century, fifty years after the bloody crusade that saw Viscount Trencavel murdered in his own castle and La Cité stripped of its independence. To punish the inhabitants for rebellion against the Crown, Saint-Louis expelled every citizen of the medieval city and ordered a new town to be built on the reclaimed swamp and marshland on the left bank of the river Aude instead. Two major roads running north to south, and east to west – like this and this.’ Florence drew the outline of the town on a sheet of paper. ‘See? Then, here, smaller streets in between. The two cathedral churches, Saint-Michel and Saint-Vincent, that took their names from the medieval suburbs of La Cité destroyed by Simon de Montfort’s Crusaders.’
‘It looks like the shape of a cross.’
Florence nodded. ‘A Cathar cross, so it does. The first people went to live in the Bastide in the year twelve hundred and sixty-two. A city of refugees, of honest people put forcibly from their homes. At first the Bastide lived in the grand shadow of the fortified citadel. But, little by little, the new Carcassonne began to thrive. Time marched on. Centuries passed. While the royal coffers in Paris were depleted year after year after year through wars with England, with Italy, and with the Spanish Netherlands, the Bastide survived the years of famine and plague, and grew in wealth and influence. Wool and linen and silks. Carcassonne on the hill was eclipsed by Carcassonne on the plain.’
‘What does eclipsed mean?’ Minou had asked, and she’d been rewarded with her mother’s smile.
‘It means “overshadowed,”’ Florence replied. ‘In the Bastide, different trades set up their shops in different streets. The apothecaries and notaries in one place, the rope makers and wool merchants in another. The printers and booksellers favoured rue du Marché.’
The memory started to fade, as it always did, and Minou found herself alone again in the bright February morning with the familiar sense of loss. She had her mother’s drawing still, though the chalk lines had grown faint on the paper, and used it now to teach Aimeric and Alis as their mother once had taught her.
Minou set her sights on the day ahead, then walked into the Grande Place. The most coveted pitches were under the covered market in the centre, or beneath the wooden colonnades that bordered the square. Even during Lent, the place was a riot of colour and commerce on market day. She tried to take pleasure in the spectacle. Hawkers, with cages of wild fowl and embroidered hoods for hunting birds, called out to the finely dressed women and men walking past.
But, in truth, despite the bustling and convivial atmosphere, her spirits were troubled. A chill wind was blowing through the Languedoc. For all that Carcassonne was some two weeks’ ride from the powerful cities of the north, and the customs of the south were different, Minou feared their shop’s reputation for selling books to suit all religious tastes was out of step with the increasingly intolerant times.
Bernard Joubert was a faithful Catholic, adhering to the old ways from habit as much as piety. It had been his wife who had both a skill for business and an enquiring mind to match it. Tolerance ran in her veins as steady and true as her Languedocien blood. It was she who had suggested that they should stock the words men wanted to read: Thomas Aquinas and St Paul, Zwingli and Calvin, devotional works in English and romances in Dutch.
‘We shall all be reunited in God’s heavenly Kingdom,’ she would say to her husband when he wavered, ‘whichever path we follow to get there. God is greater than anything man can comprehend. He sees all. Forgives all our sins. He expects no more than for us each to do our best to serve Him.’
Florence’s instincts had been right and the business had thrived. Joubert’s reputation grew. He was known to be able to acquire religious works from Geneva, from Amsterdam, Paris, Antwerp and London, and both collectors and ordinary citizens made a path to his door. Manuscripts from the English monasteries and convents looted in old King Henry’s time, now circulating freely throughout the Midi, fetched a particularly good price. Most successful were Marot’s translations of the Psalms into French and editions of the Gospels, which Bernard printed on his own press. It was the bookshop that kept him putting one foot in front of the other when his grief at Florence’s death threatened to overwhelm him.
At least it had.
Some weeks ago, the shutters of their bookshop had been daubed with crude accusations of blasphemy. Bernard had tried to dismiss it as the work of idle fools, stirring up mischief for mischief’s sake. Minou hoped he was right. All the same, since the attack there had been a decline in the number of customers visiting the shop. Even the most loyal of patrons were anxious not to be associated with a bookseller whose name might now be on some list of heretics held in Paris or Rome. Her mother would have faced the challenge with fortitude. Bernard could not. The business was struggling and receipts were down.
Minou stopped at her usual stall to buy a fennel pie and some rose-water biscuits to take home for Alis and Aimeric later. She walked past the premises occupied by the limner and portrait painter, waved to Madame Noubel, who was sweeping the steps of her boarding house, then passed the shop selling inks, quills, brushes and easels. The owner, Monsieur Sanchez, was a Spaniard, a Converso who had fled the fires of the Inquisition in Barcelona and had been forced to abjure his Jewish faith. He was kind-hearted and his Dutch wife, a gaggle of beautiful, dark-featured children at her skirts, always had ready a biscuit or a piece of candied peel to give to the urchins sent into the Bastide from the villages to beg.
Their immediate neighbour was a rival bookseller, a quarrelsome man from the Montagne Noire who specialised in disreputable chap books, bawdy verses and provocative pamphlets. His shutters, cracked and in need of oil, were rusted shut. She had not seen him for days.
Minou stood in front of their blue-painted door and took a deep breath. She told herself that of course the familiar façade would look as it always did. Why should it not? The door would be locked and untampered with. The shutters would be unmolested. The sign – b joubert – livres achat et vente – would be hanging from the metal hooks on the stone wall. There would be no repeat of the attack some weeks previously.
All was well. The knot in her chest vanished. Nothing was amiss. There was no sign of malice or disorder, no evidence of interference. Everything looked just as it had when she had taken her leave the previous afternoon.
‘How now!’ cried Charles. ‘Another cold one, I warrant.’
Minou spun round. Monsieur Sanchez’s eldest son was standing on the corner of rue du Grand Séminaire, waving at her. He was lusty and strong, but simple minded. A child in a man’s body.
‘Good morning, Charles,’ she called back.
He carried on with a smile on his broad face and a sparkle in his flattened eyes.
‘A cruel wind blows in February,’ he said. ‘Cold, cold and cold again . . .’
‘So it is.’
‘Set to be fair all day, or so say the clouds.’ Charles gestured to the sky with both hands, a strange flapping motion, as if he was shooing geese. Minou looked up. Thin strands of flat white cloud, like ribbon, overlaid the rising pink sun. He put his finger to his lips. ‘Clouds have secrets, sshh, if we but have the wit to listen.’
Charles stared, as if only just seeing her, then began the conversation over as if for the first time.
‘How now. Another cold one. Set to be fair all day!’
Not wishing to be limed in the same tangle of words, Minou held up the keys and made a pantomime of unlocking the door.
‘To work,’ she said, and stepped inside.
It was dark in the shop but, as Minou breathed in the familiar scent of tallow and leather and paper, she could tell everything was as she had left it: the pool of yellow wax cold on the counter, her father’s inkhorn and quill, a pile of new acquisitions waiting to be catalogued and placed on the shelves, the ledger and accounts book on the desk.
She went through to the small room at the rear of the shop to fetch the tinder box. The printing press stood silent, the trays of iron letters beside it, unused now for several weeks. A square of daylight fell through the tiny window, revealing a sheen of dust on the wooden shelf where the rolls of paper were stored. Minou wiped it clean with her finger.
Would she ever hear the rattle of the press again? Her father had lost interest even in reading, let alone in printing. Though he still sat by the fire with a book open upon his lap, often he did not turn a single page.
She fetched the tinder box and struck at the stone until she had a spark, then went back into the main room. With the taper, she lit a fresh candle upon the counter, then the lamps. It was only now, as light flooded the chamber, that Minou noticed a corner of white paper sticking out from beneath the door mat.
She picked it up. Heavy paper of good quality; black ink, but in a rough hand and crude block letters. It was addressed to her, rather than to her father – and by her given name: mademoiselle marguerite joubert. She frowned. She never received personal letters. Everyone she knew, with the exception of her estranged uncle and aunt in Toulouse, lived in Carcassonne. In any case, she was always known by her nickname, ‘Minou,’ never Marguerite.
Minou turned the letter over. Her interest sharpened. The letter was sealed with a family insignia, though the seal was cracked. Had she damaged it when she picked it up? Moreover, it looked like it had been applied in haste, for the parchment around it was marked with loose teardrops of red wax. Two initials, a B and a P, were set either side of some kind of mythical creature – a lion perhaps – with talons and a tied forked tail. Below that was an inscription too small to read without the aid of a magnifying glass.
In the liminal space between one breath and the next, Minou felt something shimmer inside her. A memory of such an image above a door, of a voice singing a lullaby in the old language.
‘Bona nuèit, bona nuèit . . .
Braves amics, pica mièja-nuèit
Cal finir velhada.’
She frowned. Her conscious mind did not understand the words, though she had the sense that beneath the surface the meaning was clear.
Minou fetched the paper knife from the counter, slipped the tip beneath the fold and broke the seal. Inside was a single sheet of paper which looked to have been used before. At the top, the writing was obscured with what looked like soot. But, at the bottom, were five clear words written on it in black ink, in the same clumsy hand as on the outside.
she knows that you live.
Minou turned cold. What did it mean? Were the words a threat or a warning? Then the brass bell above the door rang, clattering into the silence of the shop.
Not wanting anyone to see the letter, Minou quickly thrust it into the lining of her cloak, then turned around with her working smile upon her face. The day’s work had begun.