Koen doesn’t often grace her fans with a new work of historical fiction, but the result is always worth the wait. Honed of place and fully-fleshed characters, the early days of the reign of Louis XIV are brought to vivid life in 1661 at France at Fontainebleau, the twenty-two-year-old king flexing his intellectual muscle in a tense drama as slow and deliberative as a chess game - one in which the fate of France is at stake.
The daily business of governance has been traditionally attended by the monarch’s counselors to free the king for other, more pleasant duties. Two such recent notables are Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin, both deceased but Mazarin only recently, deeply mourned by the Queen Mother after her long and infamous relationship with the cardinal. Without Mazarin’s steady hand, the court scrambles to fill the void in the young king’s cabinet.
Deals are carefully brokered, spies passing messages to those who would step into Mazarin’s shoes, particularly Viscount Nicholas Fouquet, Louis’s Minister of Finance. The man who has always provided adequate funds for wars and projects to demanding nobles, the finance minister has his hand in every detail of governance from financial to military, his ego rivaling that of the king. Keeper of secrets, his network and fortune are as formidable as his ruler’s. Fouquet anticipates an easy transition to closest advisor to the king but leaves nothing to chance: an elaborate spy network to report Louis’s every move; the ability to mobilize troops; a newly-built estate lavish enough to rival the luxury of royal palaces.
Wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, Fouquet has failed to notice the young king’s resistance to any authority but his own. Guardedly impassive, Louis conceals a growing outrage while investigating the depth of Fouquet’s influence, the economic condition of the country and the obstacles to be overcome before establishing himself as absolute monarch: “What a web deceit made, its strands strangling the guilty and the innocent alike.”
The power of this novel lies in its wonderfully drawn characters and their relationships to one another in a changing political landscape, every detail of court life is avidly shared through gossip and plots, alliances bred of greed and ambition by both males and females. The palate is rich and varied: the arrogant Fouquet; the grieving and devious Queen Mother, quick to place her trust in Mazarin’s chosen successor, Fouquet, even before the interests of her son; Philippe, the Duke d’ Orleans, the king’s younger brother, bedeviled by insecurities and weakness in spite of the popularity of his enchanting new wife, Henriette; the dour Spanish queen, Maria Teresa; the lovesick and scheming Olympe, Countess of Soissons; Count de Guiche, Philippe’s closest confidante, who encourages the duke to acts of dissolution and rebellion, stubbornly refusing to relinquish a life-long competition with Louis the man who is his king.
A rose among the thorns, Henriette’s lady-in-waiting, Louise de la Baume le Blanc, is of little significance in the court hierarchy but plays a pivotal role in this drama, witness to the existence of a mysterious “boy in an iron mask” and eventual object of the king’s affection when the gossip over Louis’s flirtation with the Duchess d’ Orleans becomes an embarrassment. There are loyal musketeers, a solemn king’s confidant, the petty rivalries of ambitious young women and the courtiers who plunder their ripe bodies, as well as the deadly serious business of the state. Fouquet and Louis engage in a discrete battle, Louis honing his political skills through the exercise of patience as critical elements of his plan fall into place.
The reign of Louis XIV is a fertile topic for fiction and nonfiction alike, and Koen’s diversion to the early years in Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV lays the foundation for an absolute monarchy born of expedience and determination, a young king still driven by the passionate impulses of his age but blessed with an extraordinary intellect. In spite of political machinations, court gossip, a series of inflammatory notes from Mazarin’s era and the treachery of Fouquet, Louis proves his mettle in a nail-biting conclusion - and Koen takes her place among respectable and admired authors of historical fiction.