The Mystic Rose by Stephen Lawhead

Rating 5.5/10
The Celtic Crusades trilogy has ended somewhat disappointingly.

Duncan has returned with his new wife to the fastness of Banvard, to continue his father Murdo’s good work in building a powerful and devout community. Even more precious a gift than his wife, though, is the other item that Duncan has brought to the Scottish clan: the Black Rood, the holy Cross of the Crucifixion that Duncan rescued from the clutches of the Knights Templar.

Yet the reach of the Templars is long, and soon Duncan and his loved ones find themselves under attack from the Christian Knights. Duncan’s daughter Cait is forced to flee, and soon finds herself on a boat heading for the Moorish strongholds of Spain, where she will find herself mired in a battle for religious supremacy which threatens to leave only corpses in its wake.

Cait appears to have little hope of survival, but it seems that the pious devotion of her forebears is about to bear miraculous fruit. And the possibility of her survival becomes intertwined with the discovery of the most holy relic of all…

Given the normal high quality of Lawhead's work, the final part of the Celtic Crusades trilogy has ended somewhat disappointingly. Lawhead's prose style, as evidenced in the Arthur sextet or the Song of Albion trilogy, is usually precise, sweeping in its sense of the epic, and a delight to read. The Mystic Rose proves extremely weak from an author who normally provides wonderful stories. Inevitably, you cannot help comparing it to the Sarantine Mosaic dulogy and the gulf between the two is vast.

The Mystic Rose is the story of the vengeful Caitriona and her somewhat awkward half-sister Alethea who seek to avenge Duncan's murder at the hands of the Templar Commander de Bracineaux. After buying a Norse bodyguard from the Byzantine jails she steals a letter purporting to reveal the location of the Mystic Rose (unfortunately, guessable as to what it really is fairly quickly) and disappears off after seeing Brother Andrew (as did Murdo and Duncan before her) to steal it. Alethea's abduction leads ultimately to the prize and gives a conclusion to the 'modern-day' plot that runs alongside. Taking the trilogy as a whole, it is fairly simple to understand how the intended cryptic early nineteenth century side story is going to conclude so it becomes more a case of seeing how the story will unfold. Unfortunately, this is where The Mystic Rose falls down, unlike the Black Rood or the Iron Lance.

Caitriona's voyage (after Duncan's somewhat hasty dispatch) comes across as a series of fundamentally unbelievable sketches. Peaking with Prince Hasan's fantastical palace in mid-Spain and barely saved with the eventual conclusion on a thinly-veiled Avalon-esque community, the novel provides minimal excitement. The problem is further enhanced by all of the major characters either being two-dimensional or subject to so many quick personality changes as to be implausible. Alethea's transformation from irritating sister to pious nun is untenable; Cait's constant stubbornness and Rognvald's stoical protector mentality together with the overly brutish de Bracineaux provide a bewildering mix of characters who do not respond from situation to situation with any kind of uniformity.

Stephen Lawhead is one of the finest fantasy authors writing today and his name usually guarantees a purchase. As a result, expectations of his work are higher than normal. However, whilst the Iron Lance commenced the trilogy so well, the Mystic Rose has ended it disappointingly.

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