Mistress of the Sun: Beware the Female Icarus

November 16, 2008

Sandra Gulland’s Mistress of the Sun is the historical fiction account of Louise de la Valliere, one of Louis XIV’s mistresses.  Tomboy Louise, a noted horsewoman of nobile but impoverished birth, eventually finds herself serving Madame Henriette, the king’s sister-in-law at court.  There she catches the eye of Louis himself and a love affair is born.  Louise is one of the first mistresses of the young Louis.  She is pious and her piety struggles with her love for the man, her dislike for the King and her fear that evil stalks her for her wanton behavior.  Louise finally chooses to save her soul and herself and renounces the king for life in a convent.

Gulland’s book was a little slow to get going and a tad difficult to get into at first, but once Louise makes it to court, the action speeds up.  She is part of the early years of Louis’ reign when Louis is young and full of energy and the desire to do good.  There is no Versailles yet.  Tomboy Louise, meek and angelic in appearance, seems an unlikely candidate for Louis’ eye, yet she does and keeps it for years.  It was a bit disconcerting to read her declare her love for Louis on one page and then strive to avoid hurting the queen, Louis’ wife, on the other.  I doubt many royal mistresses would be so considerate.  She suffers in silence…she is Louis’ mistress before he began flaunting them, and as a result, his liaisons with her and the resulting childbirths are secret.  I can’t imagine what that must have been like.  To give birth and then get up and attend a ball, acting as if nothing had happened.  Forced to give up your child to others to raise because he or she might be used as a pawn.  I had a lot of sympathy for Louise.  Though I still found it hard to understand exactly what attracted the king to her. 

Gulland also weaves a strand of the supernatural throughout the book.  Louise attempts to tame a wild horse through bone magic in her youth and when it succeeds, she fears the evil she committed stalks her.  That she herself is evil and damned.  Her life and time at court is intertwined with that of Athenais de Montespan, at first friend and later rival and also mistress of the king who is connected with witchcraft. 

Gulland’s tale is interesting, and she takes what little is known of Louise and creates an engrossing narrative.  There is a dreamy quality to the book that prevents most of it from seeming real.  At times it reads more like an intriguing novel set in 17th century France instead of a work of historical fiction based on the life of a real woman.

Also recommended:


Lady Julia is Silent No More

September 6, 2008

It’s probably not a surprise to any readers of this blog or anyone who knows me in “real” life that I have a weakness for aristocrats, nobility and royalty that goes back very far (like 3rd grade).  I enjoy reading biographies about them but even more I enjoy historical fiction.  I recently stumbled across Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey mysteries and found them quite enjoyable. 

  • Silent in the Grave: In which we meet Lady Julia.  The book opens with the death of Lady Julia’s husband and introduces both Julia and the reader to Nicholas Brisbane, the physically diverting private detective who stuns Julia with the news that her husband’s death may not have been from natural causes.  Julia insists on helping him investigate and as she investigates, she learns sordid facts about the husband she apparently didn’t know.  Widowed young and left wealthy, Julia begins to find herself and establish her identity while confronting truths about the life she thought she knew. 
  • Silent in the Sanctuary is the second book in the series.  Lady Julia has spent the last few months in Italy with two of her brothers, recovering from, well. everything in the first book when they are summoned back to spend Christmas in England with their father. Ostensibly, they are summoned due to their father’s displeasure with one of her brother’s sudden marriage, but Lady Julia discovers that her wily father is up to something.  They arrive at their family’s country estate to find a house full of relatives and friends…including Nicholas Brisbane…with a fiancee.  Soon, the joys of family are eclipsed by a murder in the old sanctuary in the house.  And Lady Julia discovers that everyone in the house appears to be hiding something.

Apparently, widowed aristocratic women becoming involved in mysteries is a trend. I can think of one other author right off the bat:  Tasha Alexander whose writes the Lady Emily mysteries (though I wasn’t a huge fan of the first novel in the series And Only to Deceive.  Writing about wealthy widows makes sense, though.  If you write about unmarried women, your novel might begin to resemble or become categorized with historical romance (which of course MUST mean the novel has no redeeming literary value since everyone knows romance novels are a blight on the literary world).  The widowed aristrocratic woman had freedom or at least much more freedom than an unmarried debutante did. 

Ok, so maybe one other author writing similar novels does not a trend make, but there are other similarities between Raybourne’s and Alexander’s books besides the widowed women and the mysteries:  the widows are rich and attractive; they both experience an awakening of the soul or intellect after the spouse’s death.  They discover the spouse was not who they thought he was.  A new, somewhat mysterious love interest is introduced almost immediately.  The widow soon travels to another country (France for Lady Emily and Italy for Lady Julia).  The heroine’s parents or family are prominent though in Lady Emily’s case, her family (at least her mother) disapproves of everything she does while Lady Julia’s family is bohemian (though protected by their wealth and privilege).  I feel like I just wrote a comparison/contrast essay!

I definitely prefer Lady Julia to Lady Emily.  If I recall correctly, I was not a fan of Lady Emily’s character in Alexander’s book.  She seemed very brash to me…too used to being the center of attention.  Lady Julia’s character seemed to have a true awakening.  Growing up in a wild, unconventional family, she wanted convention and not to stand out.  As the books go on, she begins to appreciate the freedom she has and take stands on she wants and deserves to be treated and to express herself.

The Lady Julia mysteries deftly explore some grim, sordid topics:  sexually transmitted diseases, incest, racism, etc.  Sometimes novels set in other eras fail when they attempt to explore topics that would have been a huge scandal in the designated time period because those topics and events just aren’t scandalous anymore.  It’s difficult to appreciate how shocking they would have been to an inhabitant of the era.  Raybourn does this well, however.  I felt Lady Julia’s shock and was just as shocked myself at some of the revelations. 

The second book in the series was not quite as good as the first.  It seemed like Raybourn tried to do too much in it, and some storylines and characters seemed extraneous.  But overall, I highly recommend the series.

Also recommended:

Why Mermaids Sing: Murder and John Donne

June 19, 2008

In 1811 London, someone is brutally killing young men and displaying the bodies in prominent places where they will be found quickly and attract much notice.  Never fear, for Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is on the case. It is obvious that the murders are connected based on items left on each body and the manner of death, and St. Cyr quickly tracks down the significance of the items to a John Donne poem.  What is less obvious is why the murders are connected.  St. Cyr along with a quirky cast of characters must figure out this connection before more murders occur.  At the same time, his mistress is acting mysterious and facing demons of her own and his relationship with his father continues to be strained.

Why Mermaids Sing is C.S. Harris’ third installment in her Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series.  I read the first book, What Angels Fear, a few years ago and stumbled across the sequels recently.  I remember liking the first book a lot.  I checked out the second and the third book in the series, but I grabbed the wrong one and read the third one first.  After reading the third one, I don’t think I’m going to go back and read the second one.

This book was an extremely quick read.  I had read 100 pages before I even realized it and finished it in about 4 hours.  It’s a good beach read.  In some ways the plot was too elegantly handled.  There is a grittiness to the situations faced and the characters themselves.  They are all haunted and scarred in ways visible and invisible, and the connection between the murdered sons is quite gruesome, but it’s almost easy to overlook because of the elegance of the novel.  Harris has a Ph.D in history, and her details and depiction of the beliefs and mores of the time are great.

This book won’t change your world, but it is a good, quick read if you like Regency or period murder mysteries.  In a lot of ways, it reminded me of From Hell and other books dealing with Jack the Ripper (even though they are set in the later Victorian era).

Also recommended:  The Alienist (Carr)

The Seduction of the Crimson Rose: Fading flowers?

May 27, 2008

I had a four-day weekend for Memorial Day, and I was finally able to get a lot of reading in.  I started and finished 3 books and started a 4th.  Now that’s more like it!

The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is Lauren Willig’s 4th installment in her historical romance Pink Carnation series (think Scarlet Pimpernel).  The story centers around Mary Alsworthy, beautiful yet still on the shelf after 3 seasons.  Even more galling is that her little sister stole her fiance out from under her, making a genuine love match, and has generously offered to fund a 4th Season for Mary.  Desperate to avoid this humiliation, Mary agrees to a mission offered by the Pink Carnation, a job that will provide her enough money to pay for her own Season.  Her mission:  to ensnare the dreadful Black Tulip, a French spy.  Her mission requires her to work closely with Lord Vaughn, a haughty, mysterious nobleman whose own loyalty is questioned and whose wife died under mysterious circumstances many years ago.  

The problem with books in a series is the amount of time between the publication of each book.  The first one was published in February 2005.  The second and third books were published in 2006, and the 4th one in February 2008.  I don’t remember when I read the first one, but I read the second and third installments over Christmas 2006.  As a result, it has been over 1.5 years since I read a Pink Carnation book.  My memory is good, but it’s not that good.  And I wasn’t devoted enough to the series to re-read the previous books in preparation.  As a result, I found myself having to search my memory for who the characters are and trying to recall the previous plots.  That difficulty may have colored my perception of this book.

This book was just ok.  I feel like everything was a little to light in this book:  the plot, the characters, the action.   The book was fairly long, so it seems that there were a lot of words without much actually going on.  Willig wrote that she was writing this book while starting a new job, and frankly it shows.  I felt like I should have swooned over the mysterious, dark Vaughn, but…eh.  I did feel a little bit for the humiliated Mary, but since I’m not ravishingly beautiful and not usually the belle of the ball, I couldn’t empathize overmuch with her situation.  As mentioned before, my memory of the previous books isn’t great, but it seemed that the other books focused a bit more on the ostensible reason for the plot:  the spy ring.  That element was really missing from this book.  It appears that more attention was given to developing the romance between Mary and Vaughn, but even that seemed to come out of left field a bit.  Suddenly, he loves her! 

Overall, I really like the series’ concept:  Eloise Kelly, a modern Ph.D student, researches 19th century flower-named spies (the Scarlet Pimpernel and Purple Gentian) for her dissertation, discovovering the identity of the mysterious and elusive Pink Carnation in the process as well as possible romance.  Each book tells the story of a different adventure for the Pink Carnation and the Pink Carnation’s assistants, and the action moves between the 19th century and modern England.  I also like that each story depicts a woman’s active role in protecting her country.  These books are historical romance (light on the smut though).  Willig is a real-life Ph.D and knows her stuff.  This book, however, is not up to her previous efforts.  Hopefully the next one will be, and maybe I will even re-read the other books in the series before it comes out 🙂 


The Other Boleyn Girl

May 20, 2008

Most people know (or at least I hope they do; I consider it essential knowledge!) that Anne Boleyn was Henry VIII’s second wife and the mother of Elizabeth 1.  What many don’t know is that she had a sister, and before Anne was in Henry’s life, Anne’s sister Mary was the one in the spotlight and in Henry’s bed as his mistress.

Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl  tells the story of the Boleyn children–Anne, Mary and George–from 1521 until Anne’s execution in 1536 from Mary’s point of view.  Mary, though only 14, is already married when the novel opens but is forced to bow to her family’s ambition and begin an affair with the king when she catches his eye.  Anne, recently returned from France, does not like having to subordinate herself neither to her family’s ambition nor to her sister’s elevated status.  However, soon Anne catches the king’s eye, and the sisters’ roles are reversed as it is Mary who must now do what she can in support of Anne’s time in the spotlight.

I really liked this book.  It was a bit sensational in parts and incorporated some of the urban legends about Anne Boleyn (incest, witchcraft, etc.) and wasn’t completely faithful to history (e.g. Anne is the older sister in the book, but she was thought to be the younger in reality).  However, Gregory is a professor, and her command of the history and details of the period is very good and lends credibility to the novel that it may not otherwise have had.  Despite the sensationalism and occasional deliberate inaccuracies, I believe that Gregory has told the emotional truth of those events. 

Very little is known of Mary Boleyn, so Gregory had a bit of a blank canvas with her, but the character’s thoughts and motivations were very real.  She was by turns naive, stupid, and jealous, but I like that she rejected the poisonous court in order to take control of her life and finally carve out a life of her own after being her family’s pawn for so long.  I had always had a bit of a soft spot for Anne Boleyn because she is the mother of Elizabeth I, my favorite and the best monarch ever, but the way she was portrayed in the book made me dislike her a much of the time.  Even though I disliked her, I felt sorry for her.  It can’t have been easy to be a clever, educated woman in Tudor times when women were perceived as nothing more than possessions.  She was ambitious personally, yet she was also forced to be ambitious by her family.  It seemed like she was caught and as much of a victim as Mary was.  In some ways, I feel like she had to make the best of a bad situation, and she did, all the way to the throne of England. Gregory’s characterization of Anne was great.  In lesser hands, Anne could have come off as only a hateful schemer or a seductress, but Gregory made you feel sympathy for her.  Event when she was at her most awful, a shred of vulnerability would come through.  I also liked how the theme of the title was present throughout the book.  At various points both Mary and Anne were known simply as “the other Boleyn girl, ” an epithet that neither wanted. 

Anne’s story is the classic Icarus myth: she flew too high, too close to the sun and it burnt her, ultimately killing her. There’s also a bit of Phaeton’s hubris mixed in since she thought she could control the king, her family and her own destiny, but her ambition literally killed her. It’s interesting to juxtapose her fate with Mary’s, the sister who ultimate rejected ambition.

Good book.  I’m still thinking about over a week after I finished it.

Other recommendations: 

And Only to Deceive: Including Me

May 9, 2008

And Only to Deceive is the first book in Tasha Alexander’s mystery series (3 books so far I believe) featuring Victorian aristocrat Emily Bromley.  In this book, Lady Emily Bromley is in forced mourning for her husband, who died suddenly on his African safari only months after they were wed.  The book starts about a year after his death, and Lady Emily is beginning to chafe at the Victorian requirements and also feeling guilty because her marriage wasn’t a love match, she barely knew her husband and therefore does not feel his loss as acutely as everyone believes she does. 

Her husband was a collector and enthusiast of antiquities, and she begins to know him as she explores his collection and one of his favorite haunts, the British Museum.  She discovers that her impression of her marriage as one of convenience was not shared by him as well as getting to know his friends and him through his friends as well as meeting new friends as she begins an intellectual awakening by learning Greek.  As if all this wasn’t enough, Lady Emily stumbles onto a mystery concerning some of the antiquities in the British Museum, their provenance and authenticity and her husband’s seemingly pivotal role.  Oh, and mistaken impressions abound as well as suspicion that her husband’s death may not have been from natural causes.

I should have liked this book a lot.  It’s right up my alley.  It’s historical, it has the aristocracy and manners.  The reviews were positive.  But I didn’t.  Maybe it had to do with the fact that I read this book during the last weeks of my school semester while I was furiously trying to finish my projects.  Maybe I couldn’t give it the attention it deserved.  But I thought it was just “ok.”

I think my main problem was that the book seemed to do too much.  One minute Lady Emily is indulging her awakening intellect.  The next minute she’s taking offense at something her late husband’s dear friend Colin has said and showering favors on another friend and rival.  Then she’s scandalizing society by drinking port at a dinner party.  Then she’s uncovering a mystery.  The plot seemed a bit scattered.  And I’ll admit it, I still don’t understand the so-called mystery about the antiquities.  I wasn’t quite sure what she thought her late husband’s possible role had been and what nefarious deeds he might have been up to.  And oh yeah, let’s throw in a jewel thief mystery in Paris as well. Why not?

I also had issues with the revelation that Emily’s marriage was a love match in her husband’s mind.  Based on everything the novel told us about him, the revelations in his journal seemed completely out of character.  It seemed false. I think Alexander wanted Philip to be a fully three-dimensional character despite his death, but it didn’t work.  I didn’t buy it.  And Emily’s awakening and sauciness kind of annoyed me.  I felt like her new-found independence and brashness were being shoved down my throat.

I think Alexander had an intriguing premise:  an aristocratic Victorian woman who married to satisfy and escape from her mother who finds herself a widow after only a few months.  She’s free.  She’s young.  She’s rich.  What does she do now? Subtract the weird, confusing mysteries and THAT’s an interesting novel.

I kind of want to read the sequels, but I don’t know.  If they are as annoying as the first one, then it’s a waste of time.  We shall see.


  • Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series:  In the tradition of The Scarlet Pimpernel
  • Daughter of the Game (Tracy Grant): Female spies in the Napoleonic Wars and pre-Victorian England

The Scandal of the Season: the Birth of the Rape of the Lock

May 6, 2008

Sophie Gee’s The Scandal of the Season fictionalizes the events that led to the creation of Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock.  The poem mocks the quarrel that arose between two aristocratic Catholic families in 18th century London after Lord Petre stole a lock of hair from Arabella Fermor, his crush.  Gee’s book details Pope’s burgeoning writing career and his friendship with neighbors Martha and Theresa Blount.  The Blounts journey to London for the Season, and Pope, in love with Theresa, decides that he needs to go to London as well in order to make progress in his writing.  Once in London, the Blounts and Pope become swept up into society.  Theresa Blount renews an acquaintance with her cousin, Arabella Fermor, and the entire city watches Arabella’s courtship with Lord Petre.  There are Jacobean plots everywhere, and Gee deftly weaves in Petre’s participation with a con man into what ultimately leads him to take a lock of Arabella’s hair.  After a few months, Pope returns home, inspired to write The Rape of the Lock.

 I didn’t know much about Pope before I read this book.  I probably read some of his writing in college but not The Rape of the Lock.  I had no idea of the events surrounding the creation of the poem, and now I want to read it.  Gee is an English professor at Princeton, and the book is full of details about the people and events of the period.  She did a really good job at fictionalizing the events in Pope’s life, and I completely believed that her account could plausibly be what happened between Lord Petre and Arabella.  Some of the plot was a little hard to follow.  For example, I understood the Jacobean scheme, but I didn’t understand the con that was being played on Lord Petre.  I also don’t think I understood exactly why his taking a lock of Arabella’s hair without her permission was so awful.  My worst criticism of the book is that I thought all of the characters were fairly unlikeable.  Pope, sympathetic sometimes, was often arrogant.  Theresa was mean.  Martha was…I couldn’t get a read on her character.  Arabella was mean as well.  Their meanness was one-dimensional at times.  Maybe they were really like that. Instead of really feeling vested in characters, I felt like I was watching a scene play out, which was possibly the point.  She was trying to depict history after all. 

If you have any interest in Alexander Pope or 18th century London, I recommend the book.  It was an interesting read.