July 12th, 2014

new romantic.

Review: The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland

The Shadow Queen
by Sandra Gulland

After wandering the French countryside with her family for years, Claudette, her mother and her brother settle in Paris. Her mother becomes one of the great stars of the stage while her two children work behind the scenes. Still, money is always tight, so when Claudette catches the attention of the beautiful Athénaïs, mistress to the King of France, she agrees to perform certain tasks for her. Whisked into the glamour and glitter of court life, Claudette soon finds that beneath its facade of beauty the world of the King can be as dark and disreputable as that of the stage.

First of all, let’s establish what this novel is not. It is not a novel about Athénaïs, the mistress of Louis XIV and “Shadow Queen” of France, even if she’s the title character. No, Athénaïs is a shadowy background character who only occasionally makes her way into the main narrative. Readers looking to learn more about her will be sadly disappointed.

But if you’re curious about the 17th century theatre world in France, this book is for you. I knew going into the book that actors were not accorded the same respect as other professions, but it’s shocking to hear just how outcast they were from regular society. Specifically, I was horrified by how actors were treated by the Church. It was considered such a great sin that actors and actresses had to renounce the stage on their deathbeds, or they would be denied a burial place in the churchyard proper and cast into Hell for eternity. It seems more than a little Janus-faced to deny actors heaven because of their trade when monarchs and the public eagerly attend the plays, especially since the writers who create the plays go unpenalized.

Claudette’s fascination with Athénaïs seems an unrequited romance. Or am I the only one reading a lesbian subtext to Claudette’s obsession with the marquise de Montespan? Certainly, Claudette is bewitched, so again and again she aids Athénaïs by hiding her lover, procuring love potions, and even bedding the king when Athénaïs commands it. But there’s no passion in the story. Even though the reader is in Claudette’s head, descriptions are often clinical or vague. Years roll by, with Athénaïs fading in and out of the picture and not much happening when she isn’t around.

The story also ends suddenly, abruptly. Claudette is accused of a monstrous crime, and while she is set free she is exiled from court. This is true to history. But by removing her from Athénaïs’ fall from favor, the story is robbed of its dramatic conclusion. We never learn what happens after Claudette leaves the main scene of action. The book thus feels unfinished and wanting.

2 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Shadow Queen, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: The Eternity Cure (Blood of Eden #2) by Julie Kagawa
2012: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while
2010: Lady of the Butterflies by Fiona Mountain
2009: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
2008: Eclipse (Twilight #3) by Stephenie Meyer