France’s greatest administrator, Cardinal Mazarin, has just died, and rival statesmen are moving in to fill the void. With the country’s recent civil wars (the Fronde) never far from his mind, 22-year-old King Louis must decide who pledges their true loyalty and who intrigues against him. The omniscient viewpoint ensures a comprehensive portrait of the place and time. Readers get to see the inner thoughts and motives of all the major players, from the worries and ambitions of the queen mother, Anne of Austria, to the lusty schemes of Catherine, Princess of Monaco, all without losing sight of the larger story.
As Louis solidifies his grip on the reins of power, he begins to understand that some choices simply aren’t open to him. Even a king can’t have everything he wants, especially if one of them is Henriette, his younger brother Philippe’s fun-loving and flirtatious wife. Fortunately, before the court erupts in scandal over their forbidden love affair, his eye turns to someone new.
Louise de la Baume le Blanc is a kind, gentle, and shy maid of honor, and in a court full of hidden agendas, Louis appreciates a woman who won’t play him false. Their connection is deep and passionate, and, as Koen alludes, on his side it will be temporary – but it feels no less poignant for that. Louise also has a curious streak. One day while out riding in the woods, she spies a boy wearing an iron mask, not realizing her quest to discover his secret has the potential to shake the kingdom.
With its richly decadent setting, Before Versailles is a dazzling feast for the visual imagination. The abundance of detail can be too much to take in all at once (you wouldn’t expect to see all of Fontainebleau in a single day, would you?) so prepare for a leisurely read. In addition, the novel is a skilled evocation of one man’s determination to take control of the land he was born to rule.
Before Versailles was published by Crown in late June at $26.00 / $31 in Canada (hardcover, 460pp).