US Release date:
September 15, 2016
also available as ebook
Genre: historical fiction
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
If you enjoy historical fiction, you must have read zillions of books on the Tudors. But how much do you know about the French court? If you have not read anything about Louis XIV, you are highly encouraged to read Charlatan. This fascinating historical mystery focuses on the famous affair of the poisons, around 1679 in Paris and Versailles.
The book opens in 1676 at a black mass organized by Catherine Montvoisin, aka La Voisin, a famous fortune-teller of very dubious reputation. The mass is celebrated with two priests, and in the presence of two women, the masked client and her maid.
La Voisin looked up and gave the sisters an openly appraising glance. Her eyes were hypnotic, Athénaïs realised, and her soft voice made what initially seemed so repellent, gradually less frightening. Almost.
Then we jump three years later. With the active job of chief of police Nicholas La Reynie and his assistant Philippe, we are in the middle of a wave of arrests, hangings and burnings, of many people accused of sorcery.
The prison is full to the brim. The description of the cells in chapter 3 is quite powerful. You can imagine yourself there and smell your surroundings.
Arrests also mean torture (there’s a painful scene in chapter 21), during which the accused give many names, notably some members of the royal court of Louis XIV, for instance his famous mistress Madame Athénaïs de Montespan.
Is she really involved? To what extense?
A lot could be involved: witchcraft itself (and in these black masses, it seems the use of young infants blood was used), but also use of arsenic to get rid of enemies through poisoning, and more innocently the use of love filters.
There would be some good reasons if we remember La Montespan is already 38, which is rather old for the time. The King is getting tired of her, at least in the bedroom, and is focusing on a much younger mistress, Angélique, merely 18. At the same time, the Church is urging him to remain more faithful to his wife the Queen. So using a little something to enhance the king’s libido would make sense. Getting rid of enemies as well.
Plus we know that La Voisin placed one of her acolytes in Montespan’s household.
Isn’t Montespan’s maid, Claudette des Oeillets, a friend of La Voisin’s herself?
And let’s not forget Montespan’s own sister, Gabrielle, who can be quite the schemer.
When La Reynie discovers the king’s mistress might be involved, he gets very cautious and tries to slow things down. But his young assistant is impatient to have the whole truth revealed. Getting close to Marie, La Voisin’s own daughter, also imprisoned, might be a way to know more…
Even though I already read two books on La Montespan (The Shadow Queen and The Hurlyburly’s Husband), I thoroughly enjoyed Braithwaite’s historical mystery. I’m amazed at how much she got out of one single affair. And how she managed to keep the question of La Montespan’s guilt never completely resolved, leaving it to the reader to decide.
On the basis of a mystery never totally made clear, the author created a very lively account, where you can see and smell things as if you were there.
Her characters are so real, you can listen to them and perceive what they are thinking and plotting, either urged by jealousy or the mere desire to save their skin.
News, when it came to the court, often came in whispers and would rustle through the corridors of Versailles like water, seeking level ground. Before her eyes, heads turned, lips muttered, yes opened wider, hands sought mouths.
The book is very well written, with some brilliant passages. For instance chapter 22, with the alternation between Athenaïs’ visit to La Voisin and her presence as she watches La Voisin burn.
The title by itself kept me wondering all along. As you turn pages, you realize it fits perfectly for so many people in the whole story!
Yes, things could get just as juicy at the French court as at the English one!!
And oh, I enjoyed also seeing Francoise Maintenon in the wings, patiently waiting for her turn…
EN DEUX MOTS :
L’affaire des poisons a-t-elle jamais était éclaircie pour sûr ? Peut-être pas.
Remarquable d’y consacrer tout un livre sans qu’on s’ennuie une minute ! Ce brillant roman historique vous présente tous les faits, les personnages et les scènes comme si vous y étiez – munissez-vous de lavande, ça peut sentir mauvais !
Après cela, à vous de tirer vos conclusions : Athénaïs était-elle coupable ?
Je ne vous partagerai pas la mienne avant que vous n’ayez lu l’ouvrage, mais je peux vous dire que l’auteur est une superbe nouvelle voix dans ce genre littéraire.
VERDICT: Brilliant evocation of a scandal that shook the court of Louis XIV. With witchcraft, love, jealousy, the French royals made it just as exciting as the Tudors, and Braithwaite makes you feel you were in their midst. A great new voice in historical fiction.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
Three years later, Athenais, Madame de Montespan, the King’s glamorous mistress, is nearly forty. She has borne Louis seven children but now seethes with rage as he falls for eighteen-year old Angelique de Fontanges.
At the same time, police chief La Reynie and his young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and prisoners operating in the city. Athenais does not know it, but she is about to be named as a favoured client of the infamous La Voisin.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR