Before Versailles by Karleen Koen
Author: Karleen Koen
Genre: Fiction (Historical / French / 17th century)
Publisher/Publication Date: Crown (6/28/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked very much!
Did I finish?: Yes -- I kept daydreaming about returning to it whenever I had to stop.
One-sentence summary: Seven months in 1661 at the king's palace in Fontainebleau, France are filled with intrigue, romance, mischief, and mystery as a young lady-in-waiting navigates life at court.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: Yes, although it's a bit simple, it appeals to me, and has hints of Koen's previous covers (plus I love it when the covers accurately portray the setting -- in this case, Fontainebleau Palace).
I'm reminded of...: Sandra Gulland, Anya Seton
First line: Intelligent, virile, handsome, a man who made himself master of all he surveyed, Louis XIV was the foremost figure of his age.
Did... I get lost in this book every time I picked it up?: YES. This is a deliciously chunky historical that sucked me in from the start.
Was... I slightly apprehensive that I wouldn't dig this novel since it's loosely part of a series?: YES. But it was an unwarranted fear -- this a fantastic stand alone novel (and I've read some reviews that say the connection to the other novels is very slight).
Did... I want Louise to be my bestie?: YES. Sometimes the innocent-among-the-wolves grates on me, but I just loved Koen's articulation of her character -- brave and cautious in equal part, mesmerised by the glittering world she's in, growing more and more aware of how her life and expectations are being shaped and changed. I would love to be a lady-in-waiting with her!
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy as you can afford, but definitely consider this novel whether you're new to Koen's works or an old fan. It's a perfect summer getaway read.
Why did I get this book?: I'm a big Francophile and have heard nothing but rave reviews bout Koen's previous novels.
Review: I understand now why Koen has such a devoted following. This deliciously huge novel has a fantastic cast, a fabulous setting, delicious intrigue, romance, and drama. Set during 1661, after Louis' prime minister Cardinal Mazarin died, the novel follows Louise, a lady-in-waiting for the stunning, energetic, and inspiring Madame Henriette -- the king's sister-in-law.
Those who've read Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask (or seen one of the films) will immediately notice one of the stories plot lines, but it is one of a few threads woven through the novel. Koen blends historical fact and historical legend to create an engrossing and bittersweet story about privilege, love, loyalty, and excess.
I found I loved all the characters, heroes and villains alike, especially as the heroes and villains shifted and changed as the story went on. No one felt stock or cardboard flat which made the shimmering changes in loyalties feel realistic. I can't imagine what it would be like to live as a courtier at Fontainebleau but Koen's storytelling made it real for me -- and so, at moments, I wanted to be one of the ladies there and at other moments, I was so grateful I wasn't.
I really enjoyed Koen's writing style; I would almost describe it as literary hist fic. She has her solid frame of historical detail that make up the bulk of her narrative -- but she punctuates a scene or moment with a lovely line or two that mixes presentiment and fact, poetry and prose. For me, it enhanced the general bittersweet tone to the story; we know what the characters don't: how Louis will change as he grows, how his court will change, the courtiers, the country.
For anyone who wants a royal armchair escape, I recommend this one!
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GIVEAWAY! I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Before Versailles to one lucky reader. To enter, leave a comment with an email address. Open to US/CA readers, closes August 5th. For another entry, be sure to comment on my interview with author Karleen Koen -- coming soon!