Thursday, July 21, 2011

Before Versailles by Karleen Koen (includes giveaway)

Louis XIV is one of the best-known monarchs ever to grace the French throne. But what was he like as a young man—the man before Versailles?

After the death of his prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, twenty-two-year-old Louis steps into governing France. He’s still a young man, but one who, as king, willfully takes everything he can get—including his brother’s wife. As the love affair between Louis and Princess Henriette burns, it sets the kingdom on the road toward unmistakable scandal and conflict with the Vatican. Every woman wants him. He must face what he is willing to sacrifice for love.

But there are other problems lurking outside the chateau of Fontainebleau: a boy in an iron mask has been seen in the woods, and the king’s finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, has proven to be more powerful than Louis ever thought—a man who could make a great ally or become a dangerous foe . . .

Meticulously researched and vividly brought to life by the gorgeous prose of Karleen Koen, Before Versailles dares to explore the forces that shaped an iconic king and determined the fate of an empire.

What a web deceit made, its strands strangling the innocent and the guilty alike. (page244)

If you were to look at a list of the names of the kings of France, you would be hard pressed to go past the name of Louis XIV in terms of the importance of the legacy that he left behind. The Sun King - the man behind the magnificence that is Versailles. A man who started out as a very young king, but who grew into a formidable force to be reckoned with politically both within his own country and outside of it's borders. A man with a string of mistresses to his name.

In this book, Karleen Koen has chosen a very narrow frame of reference, focusing on a period of only six  months during the year 1661. The man who had been the power behind the throne for many years, Cardinal Mazarin, had recently died leaving Louis to decide which of his courtiers, if any, he could really trust to help rule the country. During this short period, Koen portrays a boy king who finds his identity and grows into the strong, powerful, decisive and iconic king that his country needed.

Louis' wife, the Spanish princess Marie Therese, is with child, and whilst Louis is determined that every precaution should be taken with their lives, he is not a man who is in love with his wife. He is, however, ardently besotted with the wife of his brother Philippe, known to the court as Monsieur. Most accounts I have read about the relationship between Monsieur and his wife Madame (Henriette, sister to Charles II of England) was that the marriage was a very unhappy one, but this book opens before all the turmoil starts and so he too is besotted with his wife. Once Louis starts paying court to Madame, Philippe is understandably put out (not that he doesn't have more than enough of his own secrets to keep hidden).  Scandal swirls around the couple as all the major players try to find out what the status of the relationship between Louis and Henrietta is.

The other major character is Louise de la Baume le Blanc (later known as Louise de la Valliere). She comes to court as an impoverished noble and finds a place as one of Madame's ladies. She somehow remains unsullied by the court life, a breath of fresh air that catches Louis' attention through the unwitting machinations of Madame.

Also cleverly woven into the narrative is a retelling of the story of the boy in the iron mask, which is familiar through legend, through Alexander Dumas' novel and more recently through film.

I often find myself thinking that I would not like to have lived at a royal court - so much dissembling, gossip, rumour, bribery and deceit swirling around the main players. As I read I found myself thinking a few times that I would have been completely out of my depth amongst all that intrigue, and yet, there was so much glamour, pageantry and beauty it must have been a heady place to be. And let's not forget the musketeers!

Sometimes when you read historical fiction it can feel a bit like you are putting together the pieces of a puzzle. For example, this is not the first book I have read which features Louise de la Valliere as the main character. Among others where she has been mentioned Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland comes to mind. Whilst some of the characterisation was similar, other elements were different from those I remember reading previously. Will we ever know what she was really like? Probably not, but it is fun to see the various different takes on the same historical figure and put it all together.

I had been meaning to read one of Karleen Koen's books for a long time. I am not sure quite what I was waiting for. I do know that I won't be waiting too long at all before I read the next one. Her storytelling is strong, packing drama and depth in amongst the known historical facts to bring history alive!

Rating 4/5

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the copy of this book.

Giveaway details:

We have one copy of this book to give away

- open to US/Canadian residents
- leave a comment and don't forget your email address or Twitter ID so that we can contact the lucky winner
- the contest closes on 28 June at Midnight GMT

Review cross posted at Adventures of an Intrepid Reader


  1. Great review! I just finished this book as well and I loved it. I highly recommend Koen's other novels (Through a Glass Darkly, Now Face to Face, and Dark Angels), they are all excellent historical fiction novels. I think her characters are all wonderful, even the secondary characters were very well developed.

  2. I have read all of Koen's books, and would love to win a copy of this one. Julie,

  3. I want to read this book so bad!
    Please enter me!

  4. Thanks for the review and giveaway! I've never read any of Koen's novels, but I love historical fiction and would like to learn more about this time period.

    susanna DOT pyatt AT student DOT rcsnc DOT org

  5. I can't wait to read this! I've enjoyed her previous novels. Please enter me in the giveaway. Carolyn: Thank you!

  6. I would really love to win this one, please count me in!

    Nunezbella at hotmail dotcom

  7. I love Karleen Koen's novels. She's a superb historical author in my opinion. I'm looking forward to reading "Before Versailles." It would be great to win a copy. Thanks for a chance.


  8. No need to enter me. I had actually not known anything about Louis XIV before I read this book. I had heard of The Sun King - but only the name. I was very intrigued by him from this book and will have to read more. Great review.

  9. Looks like a great book!


  10. Dolleygurl, he is a fascinating character from history for sure!

    Laura, I am definitely planning to read more.

  11. I feel exactly the same as you do, as I would also feel so out my depth; but then, if you grew up in that environment, I guess you would be more prepared for whatever came your way. Thanks for the giveaway.

    icewoman96 at gmail dot com

  12. Oh I really hope to get this one! Thank you!


  13. I've been wanting to read this one! While I haven't actually read that much on Louis XIV, I have enjoyed everything I've read on him.


  14. thanks for the chance to read this wonderful novel :)

    kmkuka at yahoo dot com

  15. Thank you for including me in your giveaway. =)

  16. Great review! I loved Karleen Koen's Dark Angels and I would love to read this one. :)


  17. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed three other books by Karleen Koen, this novel went on my wish list as soon as I heard about it. I'd love to win a copy. Thanks for the giveaway.

  18. I can't wait to read this book!


  19. I read another author's portrayal of Madame (after the relationship with Monsieur got nasty) but I never realized there was more to the Madame / Louis connection. This book sounds really interesting.

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  20. I am excited about this book. Want to learn more about the "Sun King".
    Thank you for this giveaway!


  21. I'd love to read this- thanks for the giveaway!

  22. I love historical fiction!
    I'm a new follower here. Thanks for the giveaway.
    mamabunny13 at gmail dot com

  23. This is a definite MUST-READ for me! I love Karleen Koen! Thanks so much for the giveaway! :-)

    tiger_fan_1997 AT yahoo DOT com

  24. Sounds like a very good book. BTW, I understand exactly what you mean about fitting the pieces of the puzzle together as you read more historical fiction.

    (I'm assuming the give-away close date is JULY 28th)

    booksr4reading at yahoo dot com

  25. This book sounds fantastic.

    booklove at sawcatsverse dot com

  26. I absolutely love that time in French history. Thanks for the great review and the giveaway!
    Olga (bibliophilescorner [at]

  27. Most of the historical fiction I've read is English so this would be a treat.

    alterlisa AT yahoo DOT com

  28. I don't have any of your books, but I'd buy one soon.

  29. This is too much for my heart. A king with his brother's wife. A pregnant queen who the king does not love. An impoverished noble who comes to court and catches the King's attention. This is one heck of a story.

  30. I would love to win a finished copy of this beautiful work. Thanks for the review and giveaway!

    stilettostorytime at gmail dot com

  31. Having read and enjoyed all other books by Ms. Koen, I am going to read this one too whether I win it or not. :-) Thank you for having the giveaway.

  32. I cannot wait to read this book! I have heard such tremendous things about it. Thanks for the giveaway!

  33. Oooh I'm brand new to this blog - but I love love historical fiction and would love to win a copy of this book! Count me in!

  34. I'd love to read this :)
    Thanks for the oppurtunity to win! :-)


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