THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS, not many but some. Please do not read if you want to read it yourself and be surprised.
Have you ever seen the film Return to Me, starring Minnie Driver and David Duchovny? Ever read The Da Vinci Code? Schmoosh them together, add post-medieval history, famous figures like John Dee and William Shakespeare, a big dollop of Hermetic philosophy, and a little squeeze of time travel, and you pretty much have Titania Hardie’s The Rose Labyrinth.
The premise of this book is fairly simple, but it gets complicated in the detail–so much so that you can barely see the forest for the trees by the end. It starts back in time, with a mysterious ritual at the beginning of the 17th century. The modern storyline begins with who you think is going to be the main character, Will, zipping around through France. He visits his family’s holiday home, near Chartres, and also visits that town’s famous cathedral. We find out that his mother died not long before, leaving Will a legacy and a mystery, the only clue to solving said mystery is a tiny silver key. It is hinted at that Will has become obsessed with solving the mystery (and stated flat out later in the story by other characters), and when he visits Chartres cathedral the plot thickens. He walks the ‘Rose Labyrinth’, supposedly a means of walking a pilgrimage route without the hassle of having to travel all the way to Jerusalem first. He gets hit with some kooky magic whilst walking the labyrinth, and rushes back to England (we find out later he made a few stops first, though). About a mile from home, his motorcycle flies off a bridge and we’re left wondering if it was an accident…or murder. And also, why the hell the ‘main’ character just f’ing karked it after getting used to him for a good chunk of pages.
Anywho–it turns out his brother Alex is a doctor and specialises in transplants. Cue female lead Lucy, who needs a heart transplant after contracting some disease I never heard of. They meet, they like-y. Can you guess what’s coming next?
YES. Lucy, unbeknownst to Alex, has Will’s heart. Literally. In her chest. Cue Return to Me-esque sub-plot and plot-twists.
Pretty soon things get a bit ‘mystical’ as Lucy takes on some of Will’s tendencies…and memories. This, oddly, isn’t that weird for Alex–he loves Lucy and together (with the help of Will’s ex, her new boyfriend who is also Alex and Will’s cousin and somewhat in league with the baddies, Lucy’s flat mate, and Will’s best friend) they set out to solve this mystery.
The mystery and legacy left by Will and Alex’s mother, Diana, is one centred around John Dee. The book discusses Dee a lot, but focuses mainly on his work, Monas Hieroglyphica (The Hieroglyphic Monad), in which Dee discusses the unity of all creation. Dee was what we would call a ‘Renaissance man’–basically, he had his fingers in a lot of pies. He was well-respected during most his lifetime (although he died in abject poverty), a consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, and tutor to Sir Philip Sydney, Robert Dudley, and Edward Dyer. 10 years after Dee’s death, Sir Robert Cotton bought the land on which Dee had lived and began ‘excavating’ (I use the term very loosely) for items and papers. He found some, many relating to Dee’s supposed communications with angels. In The Rose Labyrinth, some of Dee’s papers and secrets have been passed down, mother to daughter (or next female kin) for centuries–eventually falling to Diana to bequeath to one of her sons.
I’m not going into detail about what they do to get to the bottom of everything. It’s complicated, full of travel, and juicy tidbits of interesting historic lives…but it’s as dry as a really dry thing that’s been left out to dry…for YEARS. The characters are wooden, and the sub-plots concerning their love lives are predictable, and well, juvenile. It all serves to buttress the albatross of a main plot–this mystery with ultimately 2 keys, and apparently (after reading the book’s webpage) 34 ‘signs’. Keeping track of all the ‘signs’ is a task in and of itself. While I find I’m usually up for this sort of intellectual challenge in a book, I found, with this particular book, I just didn’t care enough.
That said, I liked all the historical bits. Unfortunately, it was VERY reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code, which I’m sure the author wouldn’t like to hear, and various Michael Crichton novels–where we, the readers, are the uniniated, and have to be told all about a particular subject. In this case, Dr John Dee replaces Da Vinci; the Illuminati are replaced by the Rapturtists as baddies, and also a little by the secret society that Dee and Shakespeare supposedly belong to. And although I’m usually a sucker for most things with time travel–the instances in this book left me bewildered. I’m still not sure if it was meant to mean something more than–hey, I popped in from the future, Will Shakespeare–am I what you expected? It’s weird.
I’ve trolled around online looking at other people’s reviews of this book, just to see if I missed something. Apparently–I didn’t. Most reviews give this the thumbs down–one on Amazon actually begging people NOT to buy it. I’m not going to say that–to each their own–give it a try and see what you think. The thing is, even if I did miss something–some great link that made this hot mess of a plot line make sense–the story would still kind of blow, and the dead characters are more exciting than the living ones.