Monday, March 08, 2010

Alphabet in Historical Fiction: G is for Gulland

It is time for the next entry in the Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge that is being run over at Historical Tapestry. This time I am focusing on Sandra Gulland's most recent novel Mistress of the Sun. Luckily for me, this novel also counts for several other challenges I am participating in including the French Historical Challenge: Oh-La-La!, and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Here is the blurb:

The author of the internationally acclaimed Josephine Bonaparte trilogy returns with another irresistible historical novel, this one based on the life of Louise de la Vallière, who, against all odds, became one of the most mysterious consorts of France's Louis XIV, the charismatic Sun King.

Set against the magnificent decadence of the seventeenth-century French court, Mistress of the Sun begins when an eccentric young Louise falls in love with a wild white stallion and uses ancient magic to tame him. This one desperate action of her youth shadows her throughout her life, changing it in ways she could never imagine.

Unmarriageable, and too poor to join a convent, Louise enters the court of the Sun King, where the king is captivated by her. As their love unfolds, Louise bears Louis four children, is made a duchess, and reigns unrivaled as his official mistress until dangerous intrigue threatens her position at court and in Louis's heart.

A riveting love story with a captivating mystery at its heart, Mistress of the Sun illuminates both the power of true and perfect love and the rash actions we take to capture and tame it.

Just under three years ago I started reading Sandra Gulland's excellent Josephine B trilogy, and I was a bit surprised that there were no other books out by this author. Then came news about the upcoming release of Mistress of the Sun, and I was excited, and then I had to wait for what seemed an age before the books came on to the library catalogue.  The first time I borrowed this book it was June 2008, but I had to return it unread, and then the same thing happened, and then again, and again, and, well you get the picture.

It's not that I didn't want to read the book, because I clearly did seeing as I kept on borrowing it, but other books just kept on getting in the way. So, was it worth the time it took to read? I would say that it was for the most part, but I am a little bit guarded with that affirmation, simply because for me, it never quite reached the same dizzy heights that were achieved whilst reading the aforementioned Josephine B trilogy.

The story opens with a young girl called Louise de la Valliere who lives in genteel poverty in country France, far away from the royal courts in Paris. She has an uncanny skill with animals, particularly after she uses some old style magic, which would be much frowned upon by her pious mother and by anyone else who knew about it, to tame a wild stallion. When her father dies, she is sent to a convent to continue her education, knowing that she is pretty much unmarriageable, and too poor to become a nun. As a result of family connections following her mother's remarriage, she instead finds herself attached to a royal household as a maid, finally becoming an attendant to Henrietta, sister in law of the young King Louis XIV, who is remembered through history as the Sun King, and sister of one of my favourite kings of England to read about, Charles II.

The first part of the novel was quite plodding for me, but once I got through the first hundred of so pages of establishing Louise's background and how she came to be at court, the novel picks up. When Louise catches the attention of the young king, it is only a matter of time before she becomes his mistress, firstly in secret and later more openly. Being the king's mistress brings great joy, but also trials, but Louise manages to keep his attention over an extended period of time, even if she does have to share him, until that is, she feels that she must choose between Louis and her eternal salvation.

Along the way, I was reacquainted with many of the names from history that I have read about in other novels - Athenais de Montespan who I first got to know in the delicious Angelique by Sergeanne Golon, Henrietta who I most recently read about in Susan Holloway Scott's The French Mistress - and also some of the places. For example, at one point Louis takes Louise to a hunting lodge that he owns just outside Paris. Now we know that hunting lodge as Versailles, the building that Louis extensively remodeled and made into the centre of his glittering court. Whilst this isn't a book about the remodeling process, it was interesting to read snippets about it, and about the celebrations that were held when it was opened.

As I mentioned before, I did find the opening parts of this novel quite slow, but its strength definitely lay within the portrayal of the relationship between Louis and Louise, the secrecy with which they met whilst falling in love, the opposition of both Louis' wife and mother, and other members of the court, the jostling for position, the tragedies and the loss that they shared, and the betrayal as Louise realises that she is no longer his only mistress.

Whilst the ending was perhaps not the one that I would have hoped for I recognise that the poetic license of a historical novelist is quite often restricted as a result of needing to comply with the actual events of history! I do wish that the horse storyline had not been reintroduced as it was, but that is a small criticism in the overall scheme of things.

I am glad that I finally got around to reading this novel, and definitely intend to keep on reading more in relation to the life of the Sun King and his contemporaries like Charles II.

I ended up giving this book a rating of 4/5. Now I need to start thinking about what I might post about for the letter H!


  1. Hi - great post - thanks for sharing. I love the idea of an alphabet of historical fiction - such a good idea.

    I have never read any of this - but since I am currently living in France for a year I am looking around for historical reading of a French flavour

    Thank you so much for the recommendation

    Happy blogging!


  2. Wow, lucky you getting to live in France for a year! There is quite a bit of French historical fiction around, so maybe click on the link to the French Historical Reading Challenge as a starting point.

  3. I'm glad you reviewed this as it's been sitting on my shelf FOREVER. I got it in hardcover because, like you, I adored the Josephine B. trilogy. But somehow, have just not picked this one up quite yet.

  4. I haven't read any historical fiction about monarchs in a long time (it's been about a year). I guess my reading tastes go through moods. :) This sounds like it would be a good read though.

  5. Sounds like a great subject to read about--I often shy away from "monarch books" but this one seems to have a lot of soul in it!

  6. Through review Marg. Great job! I like reading about the French courts so I'll keep this one in mind.

  7. I won this book in a giveaway and also have the Josephine trilogy on my shelves, but haven't yet gotten the chance to read them. Very awesome review on this book. I think I will probably really enjoy it, though I am a bit more excited about the Josephine trilogy at the moment!

  8. Zibilee, I loved the Josephine B trilogy, even the later books where you know that it isn't going to end well.

    Jenny Girl, if you like French history you will probably like this one.

    Rowenna, I love reading royalty books at the best of times!

    Aarti, as I said, it didn't work as well as the Josephine B trilogy for me.

    Alyce, I understand mood reading. I haven't read a cozy mystery or a travelogue for years and I used to love those.

  9. Marg I love your review! I felt the same way at the beginning of this comparison to the Josephine B. Trilogy- but then I enjoyed it immensely when all the historical figures appeared. I love the Sun King (and CharlesII, like you;)- and that period altogether, so it was easy to love the book by then. I've linked your review at my Challenge page:)
    As for the letter H...hmmm..

  10. Hi, great review! I loved the Josephine B. Trilogy, in fact, I think it was my introduction to historical fiction.

    I think that I would like Mistress of the Sun,and will have to put it on my list!

  11. Great review Marg. I'm glad you liked it. I read it as an ARC and really liked it as well. I have to agree that the start was a bit slow but I thought the rest of the book pretty much made up for that.

  12. I really enjoyed your review. I honestly forgot I had this one, until I saw it listed on your challenge. I will have to read it soon.