Published by Gallic Books
448 pp, paperback, £8.99
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
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.