Hardcover: 480 pages
Release Date: June 28th, 2011
Source: I received this copy from TLC Book Tours for review.
A few years ago I read and loved Koen’s Through A Glass Darkly, which covers the South Sea Bubble financial crisis (fascinating – especially with our more currently recent economic melt down…history really is cyclical!) as well as its pre-quel, Dark Angels, which takes place in Charles II’s restoration court and spans one of my favorite eras. I have yet to read the continuation of Barbara ‘s story in Now Face to Face, which is placed high up on my TBR list. I find I typically tend to prefer historical fiction that stars real life historical figures (even if the supporting cast mates are “real”); however the Saylors and Alderlys of Koens first three novels made for some of the best fictitious characters in hist-fic I’ve come across. In Before Versailles, however, Koen turns her pen to total historical accuracy when it comes to real vs. imagines characters, which she serves with equal justice to the genre as her previous works.
Louis XIV, known as “The Sun King”, was one of the greatest (perhaps arguably the greatest), patrons of culture and the arts to ever sit on the French throne. It was under his reign that Molière, Lully, and Mansart…Charles Le Brun, Rigaud and Jean de La Fontaine (the list goes on) flourished. It is interesting that Koen chose to focus on a very specific, small fraction of only one year of his life, considering he was one of the longest reigning European monarchs of all time. Because his life was so vast and multi-faceted, this decision kept the story focused and the direction of the book on a clear path, though it might have been nice to have had a glimpse at an older, wiser Sun King. I like to experience characters through the different stages of their lives as they learn and grow and come into their own, and this book didn’t really allow for much of that.
I will say though, Karleen Koen writes with a certain verve and spark that makes her novels immensely enjoyable. Her period detail is always on point and Before Versailles is no exception. I enjoyed her portrayal of Louise de la Valliere, whose green, wide-eyed naivety usually tends to bore me. I first became familiar with Louise’s character in Sandra Gulland’s Mistress of the Sun, and I think enjoyed Koen’s portrayal a bit more…perhaps because I had a major eye-roll moment when I learned towards the end of Gulland’s story what guilt ridden self-loathing caused La Valliere to put herself through after her affair with the king cooled down. Not the case in Before Versailles, as this book focuses on a very specific time frame in Louis’s reign..and as such, a spritely, enthusiastic, and refreshing Louise de la Valliere.
Even more of a departure from her typical portrayals was Princess Henriette of England, the Duchesse d’Orléans. Usually the victim of a terrible marriage to a husband who loathed her, this Henriette (or, “Minette”, as she was known by her brother Charles II and cousin King Louis XIV) was a bit more frivolous. Flirty, fun, and the object of the king’s desire, I found her character enjoyable though difficult to sympathize with (and she is usually so tragic!). An interesting twist in this book was the literary inclusion of Dumas’s works. We see glimpses of The Man in the Iron Mask, D’Artagnon, The Three Musketeers, and of course, Louise de la Valliere. While not my favorite portrayal of this era, Before Versailles is worth the read, especially for those new to the life of the Sun King. I think I had too much previous reading in the back of my mind to compare this to, though there were moments when I was able to shut it all out and enjoy the magnificent descriptions of a glorious time in history.