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Jun 24, 2011

Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV by Karleen Koen

Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV by Karleen Koen
Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Crown (June 28, 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0307716576
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating: five stars!

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.

Karleen Koen's newest novel represents several firsts for me. Before Versailles is the first novel on Louis XIV that I've read, therefore it offers my first characterization of Louis and his contemporaries. Secondly, this is my first Karleen Koen novel, even though I've ogled her previous books and been told many times that I absolutely must read them. I do own them and have already let my mother read them (who devoured them all in a short amount of time) and now I am certainly looking forward to all those novels after enjoying Before Versailles so much!

Since this is my first novel that deals with Louis XIV, please realize that I really have no way of differentiating from the gossip, rumors, scandals or facts that Koen utilizes in her magnificent storytelling. Before Versailles focuses on a specific four months of the reign of Louis soon after the powerful Cardinal Mazarin passes away in 1661. The Cardinal and the Queen mother, Anne, were known to have a close relationship, but how close was any one's guess. Louis realizes it is now time to take over the reigns of the government after the passing of the Cardinal, and he begins to learn of the treachery amongst his family and courtiers. And while he is focusing on the politics of his court with a lookout for more revolts, he is also eyeing Henriette, his brother's wife whom everyone adores. Henriette is portrayed as a bored woman stuck in a loveless relationship, and happily wreaks romantic havoc throughout Louis' court, as she tells the King to court other girls as well as her to divert some of the rumors surrounding her own conduct with the King.

Louise de La Baume Le Blanc
The story features these women who Louis courts, as well as his own boring wife and his meddling mother. His brother Phillippe is a scandalous creature causing embarrassment everywhere, yet I couldn't help but feel sorry for him as his wife was making him a fool until I later realized Phillippe didn't really deserve my sympathy at all. One of the main characters is maid of honor Louise de La Baume Le Blanc, a young spirited girl who adores animals over people any day. (She is featured in Sandra Gulland's novel Mistress of the Sun). King Louis takes notice of her and a courtship eventually develops, helped along by Henriette's maneuvering. Louise seemed like a hunted deer, as she was caught in the royal traps and manipulations of the court although she was the one of the few true innocents of the court. It was very hard to not feel sympathetic towards her, especially how the author favorably portrays both Louis and Louise.

Besides the relationships of Louis and his dalliances with women, the novel touches upon Viscount Nicolas as we watch Louis and his main man Colbert slowly gather damning evidence against the Viscount who was becoming a threat to Louis due to his own wealth and powerful connections. The Viscount is not aware of the concerns of the King, and blindly hopes for a high position under Louis's wing. It was all very entertaining and suspenseful to read and witness the Viscount's downfall, learning the ways of the early reign of Louis before he was known as the Sun King. Louis was portrayed in a most positive light as a strong and powerful young man with a growing leadership ability, yet with the faults of having a soft heart as well. The women at court were catty and snobby and the men encouraged it as they took advantage of whatever they could get. I really enjoyed how the intricacies (and scandals!) of the storyline played out because there were quite a few of them running concurrently. Behind the scenes of Louis' courtships and political machinations, there was always the running current of Louise's girlish curiosity of a mysterious boy in an iron mask which slams her into reality when she finally tells the King of this strange boy she saw at a monastery.

"L'Homme au Masque de Fer" ("The Man in the Iron Mask") 1789
Fontainebleau was the setting for the story, and I was immediately intrigued by the author's description of it and its immeasurable beauty. It was always there as a symbol for Louis, as a place that was built by ancestors, where Louis seemed to walk along its shadows and those of his predecessors. It slowly began to make sense to this reader why Louis moved court to Versailles and why the author chose the title Before Versailles. The writing of Karleen Koen was a bit different, as she has her own uniquely mesmerizing style which was conversational yet verges occasionally towards stream of consciousness. The myriads of court players in the beginning of the story were a bit much to get my head wrapped around, but I quickly caught up and found myself intrigued and enthralled with Louis and his many courtiers and musketeers, as Karleen Koen offers us a sensational glimpse of Louis as he was just beginning to become the man known later as the Sun King. I absolutely adored the ending, and there were several times in the book I could have cried. This is a must read for French history fans as well as those who enjoy historical romance, because there was plenty of that in this story, with a healthy dose of suspense as well. A wonderful combination of enjoyable factors and I am so glad that this one was my first read on Louis XIV. In fact, this is going on my shortlist for favorites of 2011. Where to go from here? And where does Karleen Koen go from here? A novel on Athenais, and Louis' later reign? I would love to see another trilogy that starts with Before Versailles.