Posted in Book Reviews

The Sun King Conspiracy – Book Oxygen Review

The Sun King Conspiracy

Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée

Translated from the French by Sue Dyson

Published by Gallic Books

448 pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book


It is 1661. In England, Charles II is being restored to the British throne, but in France, where the young Louis XIV – the future Sun King – rules, there is a underlying spirit of unhappiness and unrest.

At times, Jégo and Lépée’s story reads like a Dan Brown novel set in the seventeenth century, with obscure clues and baffling mysteries to be unravelled. There is a raid by a mysterious religious group searching for incriminating papers in the possession of Cardinal Mazarin, Chief Minister of France. Mazarin has been guiding Louis XIV throughout his kingship but now Mazarin is dying and all around the court men are jostling for position, keen to succeed him. The cardinal and the king’s mother, Anne of Austria, will go to any lengths to protect Louis from factions trying to prove that the king is the cardinal’s son and not the offspring of Louis XIII.  If that rumour were to be believed, France would be plunged into disarray. So begins a game of cat and mouse featuring a number of real historical characters, including Fouquet, Colbert, and Molière.

There’s also a mysterious religious brotherhood with a secret to secure, a secret that goes back to the time of Christ. These characters swish around in dark cloaks, hiding in the shadows, appearing and disappearing just as quickly. No one is to be trusted, not with what it is at stake. Who they are and their purpose is only slowly revealed.

In the midst of the swirling conspiracies lands Gabriel de Pontbriand, who has escaped his dull, middle-class life and run away to Paris to become an actor. His break comes when he is appointed secretary to the great playwright, Molière. Gabriel lives in a dingy room in a poor part of Paris but working in the theatre makes any privations worthwhile. One day, some of Mazarin’s secret papers fall into his hands. Gabriel  does not know who has stolen the papers nor who is behind the ruthless attempts to retrieve them, but now he is unwittingly drawn into the search for proof of Louis’ parentage

This novel could easily translate into the kind of sumptuous period film that the French produce so well. The details of the grand houses and the comfortable lives of the aristocracy contrast sharply with the poverty of the ordinary people of Paris. The social mores of the court are well observed as is Louis’ transformation from boy king to the legendary Sun King of France.  This is a fun, swashbuckling romance liberally doused with secrets, lies, betrayal and lust. Whether it is historically accurate is rather beside the point, although the inclusion of real historical figures does add greatly to the sense of time and place. It is a fast-paced romp through seventeenth-century Paris, but with enough research and depth to keep most lovers of historical fiction gripped.

Posted in Book Reviews

Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen – Herald Review

Six Tudor Queens

Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen

Alison Weir

Headline Review, £18.99

Divorced, beheaded, died/divorced, beheaded, survived, goes the familiar aide-mémoire to help schoolchildren remember the fates of the six wives of Henry VIII. It is not wholly accurate because Henry had his marriages to Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves annulled, and Anne survived longer than Henry’s final wife, Katherine Parr. It does, however, highlight the continuing fascination with Henry and the six very different women he married. Alison Weir, historian and award-winning author, has set herself the task of writing a novel about each of Henry’s Queens, starting with the tragic figure of Katherine of Aragon.
Katherine is often portrayed as a sad, embittered older woman, who refused to accept the reality of how far Henry Tudor would go to have a son and heir. In Weir’s hands she is transformed into a pretty young princess and, as the daughter of the powerful King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, highly desirable for a political marriage. She speaks little English when she arrives in England, where the food, customs and even the dresses are so different from her homeland. She marries Arthur, Prince of Wales, heir to Henry VII, but Arthur is a sickly young man and dies not long after they are wed. There has long been speculation as to whether Katherine and Arthur consummated their marriage, and Weir gives her own opinion in a sensitively written bedroom scene.

Katherine was an habitual letter writer, detailing not only the facts of her life in England but her feelings too. Weir has drawn upon these letters to breathe life into Katherine as a young woman, living in limbo after the death of Prince Arthur. She is optimistic, even though a disagreement over her dowry between her father and father-in-law means she and her retinue live a hand-to-mouth existence. Her clothes are shabby and food is scarce and she is forced to sell personal items to keep up appearances. Nonetheless, Katherine is very aware of her position as a princess of Spain and Weir portrays her as intelligent, loyal, and occasionally a little naive.
While waiting for her future to be decided, Katherine becomes a pawn in the royal marriage game. She finds herself in and out of favour at the English court, and even considered as a wife to the recently widowed Henry VII. For seven years Katherine had to box clever, obeying her father while not offending her English hosts, and Weir presents her as a thoughtful and wise young woman. She even served as her father’s ambassador in England, which gave her a little more prestige at court than as the almost forgotten widow of Prince Arthur. Katherine was probably the first female ambassador in Europe and performed her duties with aplomb. Weir manages to untangle the complex web of 16th-century politics, shown through Katherine’s duties as ambassador, and her astute reading of the games being played. This adds greatly to the heft of the character, demonstrating what a competent woman she was becoming.

Katherine married Henry VIII in 1509, when she was 23 years old and he is almost 18. It seems like a love match, Henry showering her with presents, poems and songs. However, Weir foreshadows Henry’s later behaviour, hinting at the storms that are to come. Once Katherine marries Henry, the details of her life are more familiar than those of her early years in England. She endures six pregnancies with only a healthy daughter, Mary, to show for her efforts. From being so trusted by Henry that he makes her regent while he is in France on a military campaign, she is pushed to the side-lines as Henry becomes infatuated with Anne Boleyn, one of her attending ladies.
Weir’s research is extensive and it adds greatly to the sense of period and place. At times the it does slow down the narrative, with blocks of information about how the Tudors lived reading more like a text book than a novel. For the most part, however, it is a fascinating look at a much maligned woman who was one of the most popular queens in English history. Weir has thus rescued Katherine of Aragon from being a bit player in the tumultuous years of Tudor England.