Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Shadow Queen: A Novel by Sandra Gulland

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 8, 2013

From the author of the beloved Josephine B. series, comes a spellbinding historical novel about a young woman who rises to become the confidante to the most powerful, provocative, and dangerous woman in the 17th-century French Court: the mistress of the charismatic Sun King. 1660, Paris: As the daughter of itinerant actors who once lit up the Parisian stages, Claudette always thought her future lay in the theater. But a series of chance encounters pull Claudette into the alluring orbit of the most beautiful woman in all of France: Athénaïs de Montespan, the mistress to Louis XIV and reigning "Shadow Queen." Impetuous by nature, Athénaïs wields a disconcerting amount of power-a fact that has ruffled many of the Sun King's key advisors. Needing someone to act as her eyes and ears, Athénaïs hires Claudette as a personal attendant. The young stagehand leaves the world of theater only to find that Court is very much like a stage, with outward shows of loyalty masking more devious intentions. This parallel is not lost on Athénaïs, who fears political enemies are plotting her ruin while young courtesans angle to take the coveted spot in the king's bed. Indeed, Claudette's supposedly respectable new position is marked by spying, rumormongering, illicit trysts, and titanic power struggles. As Athénaïs begins to lose her grip on the Sun King, her plots and fascination with the magical arts take a dark turn that makes Claudette question her allegiance to this mercurial figure-and puts the young maid's very life in jeopardy. Set against the gilded opulence of a newly constructed Versailles and the blood-stained fields of the Franco-Dutch War, The Shadow Queen is a seductive, gripping novel about lust, power, loyalty and the increasingly uneasy relationship between two strong-willed women whose actions have the ability to shape the future of France.

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Athénaïs de Montespan
The Shadow Queen marks my first experience with author Sandra Gulland and I'm kind of bummed to report it didn't exactly pan out the way I'd hoped it would. While not particularly bad, it wasn't all that good and left me at a bit of a loss. 

I think a lot of the hype surrounding this title is connected to Athénaïs de Montespan as the jacket description gives her character significant prominence. Thing is, The Shadow Queen isn't about Athénaïs. It is about Claudette des Oeillets. 

The story begins in 1651 where fourteen year old Claudette is introduced as a tumbler, working alongside her parents for their daily bread. For a time the family struggles happily along, but when tragedy strikes, she is forced into a very different role. I'm not in the business of recapping so if you want the story, read the book. Point is, Gulland spends a significant portion of the next several chapters exploring theater culture and historic events related to various troupes and playwrights of the period. It's great material, but bear in mind Claudette sits on the sidelines for most of it - making sets, mending costumes, watching the players, studying their craft, that sort of thing. She rarely steps in front of an audience so in terms of movement, there is just not much going on. 

Now if you're rereading the description and thinking something doesn't line up, you're right. What of Claudette's life at Court? The titanic-power struggles? What happened to that bit? Good question my friends, a very good question. 

The reality here is that Athénaïs lives in gilded opulence, spying on her peers and scheming against her rivals while enjoying illicit affairs with the Sun King, but our narrator does not bear witness to her rise to power which leaves us effectively in the dark. In point of fact, our heroine doesn't take a position in the royal household until Chapter 37. That's right, it takes more than half the novel to get our girl in the thick of things and not only that, Claudette decides she can't take the heat and boogies by the end of Chapter 54, never to return. To add insult to injury, she attends no balls, partakes in no political scheming, and while she is manipulated into a few brief intrigues, most of the intervening chapters are dedicated to the things she does away from the royal residence, e.g. nursing her ailing mother, attending to the needs of her younger brother, and running errands for her mistress. Again, decent material, but not what I was expecting given the description.

Somewhere along the line I placed blame for this debacle with the marketing department, but when I actually finished the book I found that Gulland's story in and of itself had me raising an eyebrow in confusion. 

Claudette des Oeillets
Structurally there were a lot of things I didn't understand about this novel. Like the relationship between Claudette and Athénaïs. Can someone please explain this? The first time they meet Claudette gives Athénaïs a spell that naturally, doesn't work. Athénaïs demands something stronger to which Claudette promises a poison in exchange for a favor. The favor is granted, but Claudette skips town and doesn't see Athénaïs again for years. Yet when next they meet, the two are instantaneously thick as thieves, sharing secrets like sorority sisters. Did I miss something? Where did the vote of confidence come from? Kind of kills the basis of the book when you can't understand the very foundation of the story. 

Gulland further confused me by incorporating several elements that seem entirely irrelevant. What's the deal with the Bird Catcher? And the scene with the stolen cloak, how does that further the plot? Claudette's brief and altogether inexplicable affection for Alexandre... again, what the heck? Why waste time on this material? I don't understand. 

Maybe I am just the wrong reader in that I don't get Gulland's style or grasp what she was trying to say, but when all is said and done, I think this is one of those books I wanted to like more than I actually did. Great material, but not what I was looking for in terms of storytelling. 

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Sometimes I felts like a queen of shadow realms, forever peering out onto glittering worlds - whether watching my mother performing from the dark wings, or Athénaïs from this darkened room. 
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booknerd said...

Sounds like a great story-line but story-telling is definitely important...

Anonymous said...

I think the marketing department kind of shot themselves in the foot by billing the book as something it isn't.