Sunday, May 10, 2020

#BookReview: The Fire and the Light: A Novel of the Cathars by Glen Craney

Biographic Fiction

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She will defy the most powerful pope in history.

As the 13th-century dawns across Occitania, a brash, charismatic viscountess named Esclarmonde de Foix champions her persecuted pacifist faith and shocks the Church by publicly debating its greatest monastic minds.

Centuries later, she is still revered as the Cathar Joan of Arc.

Spiritual upheaval shakes Latin Christendom. In Rome, Pope Innocent III plots to crush a growing dualist sect that preaches Christ's mission has been corrupted. In the Holy Land, warrior-monks make a disturbing discovery. In southern France, roving troubadours sing of a Holy Grail that offers salvation through the intercession of a worthy lady.

And in the foothills of the Pyrenees, war clouds approach Esclarmonde's hunted heretics, who protect an ancient scroll containing shattering revelations.

Declared outlaws by the Church, the Occitan knights who defend Esclarmonde's family and followers determine to make their last stand atop Montsegur, a haunting mountain keep that protects a sacred treasure. Their heroic resistance against the papal and French armies evokes the legendary defiance of the Jewish rebels against the Roman legions at Masada.

Myth and history collide in this sweeping saga of crusading fanaticism, courtly romance, knightly valor, and monastic conspiracy set during the infamous Albigensian Crusade.

To be perfectly blunt, Glen Craney’s The Fire and the Light is a story I didn’t know I needed. I wasn’t familiar with the history that inspired it, and I had no idea what to expect when I approved the purchase, but the novel struck a chord just the same and held my imagination captive beginning to end.

Esclarmonde is an elusive historical figure at best, but I enjoyed Craney’s take on her legacy. From wisps of rumor and fractured footnotes, he created a compellingly nuanced and multifaceted woman whose steadfast devotion transcends the text. The Fire and the Light is a weighty piece of historical fiction, but Craney’s decision to explore the Cathar sect and Albigensian Crusade through the experiences of this singular character humanizes the material in a profound and powerful way.

Another thing I liked about this book was its portrayal of Vatican politics. Until this period, crusading was considered a penitential exercise against non-Christians. Pope Innocent III, however, expanded the scope of these campaigns to counteract Christian sects who challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. This pivotal gear shift placed the Cathars directly in Innocent's crosshairs and ushered in a brand of persecution that would characterize Europe for centuries to come. The intensity of the material could have easily overwhelmed the narrative, but Craney’s deft handling of his subject matter creates a fascinatingly palatable and addictive portrait of the period. The history is shocking and violent, but it translates well, even to those encountering the material for the first time.

The Fire and the Light is a breathtaking story of an oft-overlooked event. It is an engaging narrative with a brilliantly imagined heroine at its helm. It is the kind of book that keeps you up at night and haunts your imagination long after the final page. Highly Recommended.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: July 13, 2019

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