Monday, 21 March 2016

Review: Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV by Karleen Koen

Date Finished: 21/3/2016
2011  460 pages  Rating ««

Over the past few months I’ve been reading a lot of novels set in seventeenth century France. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres anyway, but the reign of Louis XIV is my new jam and currently I’m always on the lookout for books set in this period of history. So naturally when I discovered Karleen Koen’s Before Versailles, I thought I was in for a real treat. The plot sounded amazing: a young Louis XIV coming to the height of his power, corrupt politicians, scandalous romances, and a subplot concerning the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask. What’s not to love, right?

Sadly, the premise of the story is about as exciting as it gets. Everything about this book sets it up to be an exciting, un-put-down-able read, yet I found myself being able to set this aside for days at a time and feel no urge at all to pick it back up. My problem here lies with the writing style: plain and simple, it bored me. It didn’t provide the story with any bulk, like the words were just floating on the pages – the style of writing just failed to immerse me in the story. I was never left thirsting for more, desperate to get to the next chapter. It all felt just very, meh.

I’m no stranger to novels from multiple character viewpoints. In fact when done well, I’m a big fan. I think it adds a lot of depth and gives the story a wider scope, but in this novel it just didn’t work and the annoying thing is, I really wanted it to. The character perspectives seemed to flit about randomly, some of which failed to give anything to the plot. Athenais de Montespan: great historical figure, but completely irrelevant in this book. Her sections could have been chopped and it wouldn’t have mattered. Besides, Before Versailles covers a condensed period during the summer of 1661, concentrating on Louis XIV's strained relationship with Nicolas Fouquet and his soon to be blossoming romance with Louise de la Valliere. Athenais isn’t really doing anything at this point other than moon about, which is as interesting as it sounds.

This could have been so much more. There is some really great potential for amazing characters and shocking twists but it all falls flat. Even the side plot mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask, one the most famous enigmas in history, felt predictable and disappointing. There was no shocking climax, no emotional connection to any of the characters, and it’s such a shame because I hoped this was going to be so much better.

I won’t deny that Koen clearly did well with her research. The French court was certainly came across as decadent and lavish, and I’m sure I would have been able to appreciate it more if it wasn’t for the annoying digressions constantly interrupting the flow of the narrative:

“’And our little French dauphin’” – the first son of the king was called the dauphin because three hundred years earlier a king of France has purchased huge territories that carried a hereditary title, taken from the dolphin on the coat of arms.”

I mean, come on. It isn’t even useful information; it’s just unnecessary knowledge which acts as nothing more than a distancing mechanism for the reader. This book promised scandal, mystery, passion, and I wasn’t expecting The Tudors or anything but man, this fell short. I’ve another of Koen’s novels in the pipeline so perhaps I’ll have better luck with Dark Angels when I get around to reading it.

Update: I did not have better luck with Dark Angels. I DNF'd it after about 70 pages. Koen isn't for me. 

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