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.