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!