Review: Before Versailles by Karleen Koen

Format Read: print ARC provided by the publisher
Number of Pages: 400 pages
Release Date: September 1, 2012
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Genre: Historical Fiction
Formats Available: Hardcover, Trade Paperback, ebook, audiobook
Purchasing Info: Amazon | B&N | Kobo | Book Depository US | Book Depository (UK) | Author’s Website | Publisher’s Website | Goodreads

Book Blurb:

After the death of his prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, twenty-two-year-old Louis steps into governing France. He’s still a young man, but one who, as king, willfully takes everything he can get—including his brother’s wife. As the love affair between Louis and Princess Henriette burns, it sets the kingdom on the road toward unmistakable scandal and conflict with the Vatican. Every woman wants him. He must face what he is willing to sacrifice for love.

But there are other problems lurking outside the chateau of Fontainebleau: a boy in an iron mask has been seen in the woods, and the king’s finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, has proven to be more powerful than Louis ever thought—a man who could make a great ally or become a dangerous foe . . .

Meticulously researched and vividly brought to life by the gorgeous prose of Karleen Koen, Before Versailles dares to explore the forces that shaped an iconic king and determined the fate of an empire.

My Thoughts:

This was originally posted at Book Lovers Inc.

There are two types of historical fiction.  The first is the type where the main characters are nearly all fictional, but the story takes place in a historic setting. Before Versailles is the other kind. Nearly all of the characters are historic figures, but the author is using fiction in an attempt to explain events that set the stage for major forces in history. She is trying to breathe life into people we know only as royal portraits, or autocratic archetypes.

She’s also trying to make the motives that she ascribes to her royal characters fit with recorded history. But we’ll never know. All we know is what came after.

Louis XIV of France is remembered as “The Sun King”. The historical quip attached to his name is the autocratic dictum “L’État, c’est moi” (“I am the state”) although there’s no proof he actually said it. But he did establish an absolute monarchy in France, one that was only brought down by the French Revolution.

But Karleen Koen’s Louis, in 1661, has not yet started down the road of absolutism. He is 22, and he is king. But far from being an absolute ruler, he is himself bound by the ministers who really run his country. The greatest of whom, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, has just died. Leaving Louis a window in which he might seize power. And does.

The mix of history and fiction often catches the reader by surprise. The lieutenant in charge of Louis’ Musketeers (and yes, there really were Musketeers) is Charles D’Artagnan. The fictional hero of Dumas’ tales is based on the factual man who led Louis XIV’s personal guard detail.

While the novel takes place over a mere six month span, it attempts two sweeping arcs. One is a personal story, as Louis, married to a Spanish princess entirely too much like his mother, falls hopelessly in love first with his sparkling sister-in-law, and then with one of her ladies-in-waiting.

The second story is more complex, and much more intriguing. It is an attempt to describe the maneuvering that might have taken place to bring the complete reins of power into Louis’ hands.

And in the middle of the personal intrigues and the financial and ministerial machinations, the author introduced the story of the boy in the iron mask.

Verdict:  The best way to describe this book is that the story is dense. There is so much going on, and the author tried very hard, perhaps too hard, to make everything fit into the historic events, instead of just telling a story.

As a consequence, it felt as if I got bogged down in the names and details, because there seemed to be a need to fit everyone in, and not every single one of the characters was necessary for telling the story. They were there in history, but they didn’t forward the plot of the novel.

Before Versailles might have worked better if it had focused on just the love story, or just the political potboiler, instead of trying to fit everything into a single book.

I give Before Versailles 2 1/2 stars.

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