Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: Before Versailles by Karleen Koën

The Sun King, "L'état, c'est moi." Versailles...These are the first three things that come to mind where Louis XIV of France is concerned. But what about before he became the all-powerful monarch? Karleen Koën's fourth novel, Before Versailles, published this month in trade paperback by Sourcebooks, focusses on five months of the young king's life during the spring and summer of 1661, soon after he began his personal rule. Until then his mother, Anne of Austria (a Spanish princess) had been regent, guided by Cardinal Mazarin.

In May of 1661, Louis had been married to Maria-Teresa of Spain for almost a year and she was pregnant with his first child. The court was at Fontainebleu and had recently welcomed Louis' cousin and sister-in-law, Henriette, sister of Charles II of England. Into this glittering company came a young, impoverished noblewoman, Louise de la Baume le Blanc, to serve as one of Henriette's maids of honour. It is through her eyes that Koën tells the story.

An innocent in many ways, Louise is thrilled to have escaped the boredom of the Orléans household, in which she had served, to join the court of the young king. Soon she is caught up in the intrigue and jealousies of the king, his brother, his sister-in-law and the young queen. Additionally, she encounters a strange young man in an iron mask and seeks to learn his identity and the reason his face is kept hidden.

Counselling her are her cousin, François-Timoléon de Choisy and her friend Fanny de Montalais, another maid of honour. As the summer progresses, Louise finds herself drawn into a relationship with the king after confiding in him about the boy in the mask. Their love blossoms, but remains hidden from the prying eyes at court, while at the same time Louis grasps the reins of power for himself, seeking to eliminate all those who challenge him.

Known for her dedication to period detail and tight plotting, Ms. Koën has produced a masterpiece of historical fiction. The story starts slowly, introducing characters and laying the groundwork for a multi-threaded story that culminates in Louis' independence from all who seek to control him. By a third of the way through the book, the reader is reluctant to put it down as Louise and Louis begin their inexorable dance towards each other.

But it is more than the love story that entices, it's the brilliant portrayal of a court full of so many undercurrents it's amazing its inhabitants don't drown. Add in the smallest attention to dress, food, flora, fauna, architecture and social history, and it is little wonder that dedicated readers of historical fiction rave about Ms. Koën's work.

I loved her characterization of Louis XIV, as a young man transforming himself into the Sun King, taking control of his government, yet still maintaining some sense of himself as just a man, caught in a situation over which he has little control - married to a woman he doesn't love and whose destiny it is to rule a kingdom.

Louise also stands out, growing in confidence and maturity as she navigates the increasingly dangerous waters of a court obsessed with power and position. A typical teenaged girl of the time, she swings between poor judgement in some situations and acts of genuine empathy - it is easy to see why Louis is drawn to her. She is not perfect, nor does she behave like the more experienced women at court who sacrifice their souls to achieve power and wealth.

The supporting characters also shine, from the child-like queen to Viscount Nicholas, from Louis' brother Philippe to his mother's former lady-in-waiting, the Duchess de Chevreuse. Each has a role to play that adds to the story's depth without detracting from the central plot.

I did notice that on a few occasions Ms Koën hints to the reader of what will happen to certain characters beyond the scope of the book. This sporadic use of the omniscient pov would, in the hands of a less experienced writer, prove annoying and distracting, yet her skill is such that those passages fit naturally into the narrative.

Ultimately, what makes this work a successful and enthralling piece of historical fiction is the absolute sense of place and the believability of the characters and their mindset. Their motivations rang true and it was easy to get caught up in their lives, so easy, in fact, that I was disappointed when I reached the final chapter. This book is a veritable feast for anyone interested in 17th century France and its star, Louis XIV.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Never mind the sagging middle...mine just disappears!

Let me make it clear, I'm talking about the middle of my three works-in-progress, not my physical middle! It's just fine :) Anyway, from 2006 - 2008 I started three different novels and found that the story just petered out. I'm not sure why. For the first three of my mss, I had a pretty clear idea where the story was going and for at least one of the aforementioned ones, I thought I did too, but I just couldn't get through to the end with the plotting. All the difficult mss just bog down and refuse to move. I had moments like this with the first three, but was always able to work through it and keep writing. Even the really bad first ms! It had major problems, but at least the story kept rolling along.

I can't figure out where I'm going wrong. When I finished school I thought "Yippee, I can write again." But other than some editing on one of the completed mss, I find myself too scare to even try to fix what has gone wrong because I have no idea how even to go about it. I just can't believe that I've lost the ability to write a story...but maybe I have.

Part of the problem could be that I started each of the problem mss as part of NaNoWriMo, which meant just writing flat out without doing any analysis. However, that doesn't explain why I can no longer see an ending or why my plotting abilities have deserted me. It's as though my characters will go so far and then they'll dig in their heels and refuse to move. With my other mss, often just letting my characters take over at key points provided the necessary plot twists, but this no longer happens.

Am I trying too hard? Have I picked three wrong stories? 6 wrong characters? Argh! If this was my second ms, I could totally understand it happening - first was a fluke and really, I was kidding myself. But how does someone go from successfully completing three stories to not being able to complete even one more?


Monday, June 18, 2012

Adapting to the non-academic life...

It's been fewer than two weeks since my graduation, so hardly surprising that I still feel a little lost without school work to do. Not that I'm unhappy by any means but it still feels very weird not to have something due, something to read or a discussion to join in. I keep feeling as though I should be doing something!

There are definite advantages to having this time free, though - I actually did some editing on one of my mss last week, began organizing my recipes, puttered in my garden and even cleaned my office! And I'm hoping that once summer finally arrives here on the Coast, I'll be able to spend lots of time outside with my camera.

I imagine that within another month or so, I'll have adapted to this new, non-school lifestyle and be able to just enjoy it :)


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I finally graduated!!!

Yes, at long, long last, I graduated from Langara College's Library and Information Technology program, so I'm officially a Library Technician.
Graduation day at Langara College

My final term was extremely busy, as it also included two work placements, one at the West Vancouver Memorial Library and another at the Sunshine Coast Museum and Archives. I enjoyed them both immensely, even though for the West Van practicum, I had to be up at 4:50 every morning to get the ferry. The staff at both institutions were extremely welcoming and I loved learning new things. In fact, I'm staying on at the SCMA as a volunteer :)

My time at Langara was extremely challenging, but I was very impressed with the quality of the program and most of the instructors (those I didn't like were not in the LIT faculty). However, without the support of Sean (who cooked countless meals and talked me through difficult assignments), the rest of the family and the staff at the Sechelt Library, I would have been lost. My colleagues were endlessly patient with my many, many questions and were always happy to help me out with assignments when necessary. I learned so much more about how the library runs because of the various interviews I had to conduct as part of the program.

Other than the learning, the best part of my Langara experience is the friends I made - that is what I'll miss most of all, my daily interaction with my classmates. Fortunately, Facebook does provide an easy way to stay in touch, though it's still not quite the same as the Blackboard Social Cafe. 

So, what now? Well, I hope to get more hours at the Sechelt library, but I'm also looking forward to returning to my writing, a pursuit I pretty much had to put on hold over the last three and a half years. Publishing a novel is still a dream of mine :) And I know from long experience that when my mind isn't fully occupied with school work, my characters cannot be silenced for long. I also admit that a summer without school is looking pretty good at this point! What a concept - being able to enjoy the sun and take photos to my hearts content, not to mention getting my hands dirty in the garden.

So, that's it for now - I should be able to update this blog more frequently from now on!


Sunday, February 19, 2012

February update...

It's been a long time since I've posted, and for that I do apologize. My life has been so busy, but the end of school is now in sight - at long last! If all goes well, I'll graduate during the first week of June :) It's been a long haul - this is the fourth spring term for me and I'm feeling a little burnt out at this point. Fortunately, I've only been taking one course as well as working with a supervisor to arrange my final practicum. Even so, there has been a lot of work.

In other news, Sean and I took two mini vacations late last summer/early fall. The first was a camping trip to Lightning Lake in Manning Park - about 3 hours east of Vancouver. We hiked, biked and enjoyed campfires - even met up with some friends who had been camping nearby and decided to spend the night at the same campground we were at. The weather was a little cool, but we were snug in the camper every night and only got rained on a little. In late September we drove north of here to the West Coast Wilderness Lodge in Egmont, so celebrate our 21st wedding anniversary. Again, we went hiking and visited the museum in Egmont, which is fascinating, and ate lots and lots of lovely food.

Christmas was a noisy affair - lots of family and we enjoyed watching our young nephews run and play. We also spent New Year's Eve with the family up at Whistler, which was a lovely treat. Along more mundane lines, I'm continuing to work two days a week at the Sechelt Library, a job I continue to love. There's always something new to learn and it's wonderful to part of such an important community service.

That's about it for now. Once school is done, I hope to resume a more regular blogging schedule as I resume my writing and hopefully, my reviewing.