Before Versailles: Before the History You Know: A Novel of Louis XIV by Karleen Koen

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Before Versailles transports you to a world of secret passions and plots, a world of duplicity and malice…a world that created one of the best-known monarchs to grace the French throne.

At the most decisive time in the young king’s life, Louis XIV can taste the danger. His court teems with greed and corruption, the wrong woman draws him into a wrenching love affair, and a mysterious boy in an iron mask haunts the woods. The untried ruler is coming into his own in 1661, and Louis XIV must face what he is willing to sacrifice for honor and for love.

Meticulously researched and gorgeously brought to life by New York Times bestselling author Karleen Koen, Before Versailles offers up a sumptuous, authentic exploration of a time that forged a man into a king.

Rating: A

The story takes place during four months of 1661, the year in which Louis XIV fully assumed the reins of kingship following the death of his trusted adviser Cardinal Mazarin (also widely held to have been Louis’ mother’s lover). There is a large list of dramatis personae at the front of the book giving details of who is related to whom, which it may be helpful to refer to at first (if you’re reading the print version – with the ebook, it’s not so easy!) because Koen sometimes refers to characters by their first names and sometimes by their title. This isn’t a huge problem – just something to be aware of if, like me, you were not familiar with all the different personages in the story.

The author’s style is very easy to read; I found it very clear and quite refreshing in a way. All the characters – the majority of whom are historical figures – are clearly delineated, even the vast numbers of different ladies-in-waiting and other courtiers, and even though the PoV sometimes switches abruptly, I didn’t find it off-putting because I was so engrossed in the events being described.

I absolutely loved all the plotting and intrigue surrounding the court. Spies are everywhere, corruption abounds and everyone (almost) is out for what he or she can get. It’s salacious and frequently immoral (or at the very least amoral) and utterly fascinating to read. There are two threads running throughout the novel – one relating to Louis’ distrust of the wealthy and powerful Viscount Nicolas Fouquet, who seeks to replace Mazarin as Chief Minister of France; and the other concerning the identity of a mysterious boy who wears an iron mask. Having read Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask a number of years ago, I enjoyed reading another version of this famous story.

At twenty-two years of age, Louis is at his most heroic and charming. Something else I thought was very well handled was the way in which Louis undergoes a rite-of-passage, even in the short space of time in which the events of the book take place. At first, he is still somewhat impulsive and seems not quite ready for the huge responsibilities he has to shoulder; but by the end he is very much his own man and has emerged completely from the Cardinal’s shadow. He is very handsome, and all the women of the court are a little in love with him; but even though kind and attentive to his wife, the Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa (who is expecting their first child), he is not in love with her. He becomes infatuated with his brother’s wife, Henriette (sister of Charles II), but soon after falls desperately in love with Louise de la Vallière. Louise is one of Henriette’s ladies – her family is not grand or rich and she is refreshingly innocent and unsullied by the excesses of the court. She does not want fame or fortune from the King and in fact, it is her simplicity and innate goodness that attract Louis. They become lovers, Louise insisting that their relationship must be kept a secret because she is at heart a well-bred, God-fearing young woman.

We don’t see their relationship play out in this book as although Louise is one of the major viewpoints, this is essentially Louis’ story. I found it thoroughly engrossing and will certainly be seeking out more fiction based in and around this, one of the most glorious periods in French history.

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