Thursday, July 21, 2011

Before Versaille by Karleen Koen

Louis XIV is one of the best-known monarchs ever to grace the French throne. But what was he like as a young man—the man before Versailles?

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.

What a web deceit made, its strands strangling the innocent and the guilty alike. (page244)

If you were to look at a list of the names of the kings of France, you would be hard pressed to go past the name of Louis XIV in terms of the importance of the legacy that he left behind. The Sun King - the man behind the magnificence that is Versailles. A man who started out as a very young king, but who grew into a formidable force to be reckoned with politically both within his own country and outside of it's borders. A man with a string of mistresses to his name.

In this book, Karleen Koen has chosen a very narrow frame of reference, focusing on a period of only six  months during the year 1661. The man who had been the power behind the throne for many years, Cardinal Mazarin, had recently died leaving Louis to decide which of his courtiers, if any, he could really trust to help rule the country. During this short period, Koen portrays a boy king who finds his identity and grows into the strong, powerful, decisive and iconic king that his country needed.

Louis' wife, the Spanish princess Marie Therese, is with child, and whilst Louis is determined that every precaution should be taken with their lives, he is not a man who is in love with his wife. He is, however, ardently besotted with the wife of his brother Philippe, known to the court as Monsieur. Most accounts I have read about the relationship between Monsieur and his wife Madame (Henriette, sister to Charles II of England) was that the marriage was a very unhappy one, but this book opens before all the turmoil starts and so he too is besotted with his wife. Once Louis starts paying court to Madame, Philippe is understandably put out (not that he doesn't have more than enough of his own secrets to keep hidden).  Scandal swirls around the couple as all the major players try to find out what the status of the relationship between Louis and Henrietta is.

The other major character is Louise de la Baume le Blanc (later known as Louise de la Valliere). She comes to court as an impoverished noble and finds a place as one of Madame's ladies. She somehow remains unsullied by the court life, a breath of fresh air that catches Louis' attention through the unwitting machinations of Madame.

Also cleverly woven into the narrative is a retelling of the story of the boy in the iron mask, which is familiar through legend, through Alexander Dumas' novel and more recently through film.

I often find myself thinking that I would not like to have lived at a royal court - so much dissembling, gossip, rumour, bribery and deceit swirling around the main players. As I read I found myself thinking a few times that I would have been completely out of my depth amongst all that intrigue, and yet, there was so much glamour, pageantry and beauty it must have been a heady place to be. And let's not forget the musketeers!

Sometimes when you read historical fiction it can feel a bit like you are putting together the pieces of a puzzle. For example, this is not the first book I have read which features Louise de la Valliere as the main character. Among others where she has been mentioned Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland comes to mind. Whilst some of the characterisation was similar, other elements were different from those I remember reading previously. Will we ever know what she was really like? Probably not, but it is fun to see the various different takes on the same historical figure and put it all together.

I had been meaning to read one of Karleen Koen's books for a long time. I am not sure quite what I was waiting for. I do know that I won't be waiting too long at all before I read the next one. Her storytelling is strong, packing drama and depth in amongst the known historical facts to bring history alive!

Rating 4/5

This book is one of my reads for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and also for Paris in July.

Head on over to Historical Tapestry for your chance to win a copy of this book! My thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing me with an ARC of this book. For other stops on this tour:

Tour stops

Tuesday, July 5th: 2 Kids and Tired Book Reviews
Wednesday, July 6th: Broken Teepee
Thursday, July 7th: The Bookworm
Friday, July 8th:
Monday, July 11th: In the Hammock
Tuesday, July 12th: Living Outside the Stacks
Wednesday, July 13th: The Maiden’s Court
Thursday, July 14th: Royal Reviews
Monday, July 18th: Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, July 19th: Enchanted by Josephine
Wednesday, July 20th: Laura’s Reviews
Thursday, July 21st: Historical Tapestry AND Adventures of an Intrepid Reader
Friday, July 22nd: Books Like Breathing
Monday, July 25th: Stiletto Storytime
Tuesday, July 26th: Hist-Fic Chick
Wednesday, July 27th: Life in Review
Thursday, July 28th: Reading, Reading & Life


  1. I sometimes have a hard time with books set in the French Royal Court because there are so many characters to keep straight but this one sounds pretty darn good!

  2. I am glad you enjoyed this so much. I could have received a review copy, but I have 3 books by her on my TBR that I really should get to! I think I will really enjoy her, but I just haven't got around to them yet...

  3. I enjoyed this one too. It was my first Koen book but not my last.

  4. I have read two of Koen's previous books, with mixed results. Through a Mirror Darkly I loved, the other I never finished and can't even remember the name!

    Glad to read this book is a wonderfully decadent and enjoyable read. Thanks for the review :)

  5. I have been reading a lot about this book recently and think it sounds like it would be right up my alley for a lot of reasons. One of them is that I am not really all that familiar with the time, place, and characters, and since one of the reasons I love historical fiction is to increase my knowledge, the book seems like it would be just about perfect. I am glad to hear that you liked it, and will now be adding this to my wish list. Great review, by the way!

  6. I like it when I learn a bit about an historical character from different books - like you say, it's like putting a puzzle together, and I really enjoy it.

    Thanks for being on the tour Marg! I appreciate you cross-posting at Historical Tapestry as well. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.