Kate Mosse has been on the periphery of my literary radar for a while now. Hers were books that would show up on recommendation lists based on books I had like. They would appear at my friends’ houses, imposing yet reassuring with their bulk and sleek, simple cover art. I was vaguely aware that she wrote historical fiction, and that was it.
Citadel confronted me from the stack of just-returned books at the library one afternoon. It eyed me up, and finding me worthy, told me I was taking it out that very afternoon. I was somewhat taken aback by its forwardness, but I acquiesced. It was only later that I discovered it lied about its age—it’s actually the third book in a trilogy. Fortunately, age isn’t so much an issue for me, at least not with the type of trilogies where the books are loosely connected as they are with Languedoc.
Alas, it’s fair to say that Citadel and I did not hit it off. Ours was a date best described by words like “tepid” and “mediocre”. Citadel likes to talk about itself, and boy, it had certainly had its share of adventure sto relate. But I kept wondering when the real story would start and when I would actually learn something about what kind of book this was. Instead, it kept referencing new people and events in its life. And the worst, by far, was Arinius.
The Arinius storyline just never came together for me. Partly this is because his chapters are comparatively short and infrequent. I question whether their presence actually adds anything to the overall narrative. For the majority of the book, Arinius’ chapters are little more than descriptions of his travels through Gaul. It’s not until the very end that he experiences any sort of conflict, and as such, his story is quite boring.
The 1942 storyline at least presents its share of obstacles for its characters. Sandrine certainly grows and changes as she matures from an unsure, impulsive girl into a clever and courageous woman. Although I found the simplistic way in which Mosse presents their decisions somewhat irritating, I really enjoyed how various characters, like Luce, rationalized their collaboration. In this respect, Citadel allows the reader to sympathize with what the ordinary citizens of these villages and towns must have felt as the Nazi occupation deepened. It’s all well and good to say that one would stand and fight against such an invader in theory. When it’s actually happening, it is a different thing entirely, more pernicious and less overtly easy to throw off.
So for its depiction of the struggles of occupied Languedoc, Citadel earns some respect. Mosse evinces both passion and planning in her presentation of this story, enough that I can understand what makes her so beloved of some readers. Yet if the Languedoc people managed to rise up and drive out the Nazis anyway, why did they need ghost soldiers? For this reason, I found Citadel’s eleventh hour dip into the realm of fantasy perplexing more than anything else. Up until that point, the hunt for Arinius’ Codex had been pleasantly archaeological, reminding me of the conspiratorial tones of Eco and Ruiz Zafón. The actual resolution after all that feels more deflating than rewarding.
Mosse emphasizes dialogue over description, so despite Citadel’s generous endowments, I found myself speeding through it. But I just kept thinking, “When is the story going to begin?” I guess it happened somewhere along the way, but I’m not sure where. After slightly more than 900 pages, I emerge wondering what I have to show for my time and effort. I don’t feel particularly enlightened about that time period or place during the Second World War—I enjoyed the story and characters, yes, but Mosse leaves most of the context up to the reader’s devices. And I didn’t get much from the spiritual storyline that attempts to unite Arinius’ experience with that of Sandrine and her contemporaries.
Perhaps those who caught the first two instalments would find something of value here, but for newcomers like myself, Citadel is definitely not the place to begin with Mosse. We were not well matched to each other, and after I turned the last page, we parted amicably without so much as exchanging numbers. I’m optimistic that it might have a younger, more attractive sibling for me to meet a few months or years hence—perhaps over a good cup of tea somewhere. Until then, we’ll say hi at parties, but we’ll just stay friends.