The Sun King Conspiracy
These weeks, I seem to be reading French history backwards: after a book on the last months of Marie-Antoinette, I read a historical novel corresponding to the time she arrived in Versailles, and now one about Louis XIV! This historical mystery The Sun King Conspiracy reads like a saga.
The first pages open up with a secret meeting in Rome between six people, one of them being François d’Orbay, one on the key architects working on building Fouquet’s castle at Vaux. Powerful chief minister and Cardinal Mazarin (also Louis XIV’s godfather) is very sick, and this time seems perfect to implement something contained in a secret document.
But this group has enemies, and the secret ends up being stolen, with coded documents containing two other secrets, all three potential opportunities to start a major upheaval against monarchy, at least the way it has been lived so far. Will the group manage to recover the secret and put their plans into action for the sake of France?
The book takes place shortly after the Fronde (1648-1653), and this is an important background for the story.
The rising against monarchy didn’t start in 1789, there were already many signs of it in the 17th century, and the dying Mazarin is very aware that enemies are lurking.
The novel spans over a relatively short time, from February to November 1661 (the original French title is actually “1661”), but within these ten months, you get to meet all the major actors of the time, in the political, religious, and art world. Among others, I would highlight:
– Louis XIV, his brother the Duke of Orleans and Henrietta of England, his mother Anne of Austria, his (first official) mistress Louise de Lavallière, the archenemies Fouquet and Colbert
– Mazarin and his three nieces, Paul de Gondi (archbishop of Paris in exile, as former member of the Fronde), Bossuet
– Molière, Lully, Charles Perrault (also lawyer, which I didn’t know), architect François d’Orbay, La Fontaine, Everhard Jabach (art collector and banker), Mademoiselle de Scudéry, Blaise Pascal, Charles le Brun (Vaux’s decorator), Rembrandt
and of course add to that Catherine Voisin, the master poisoner of the time!
If you are not familiar with this period of French history, it may seem convoluted at first, but if you take time to take notes about the characters, you will end up with a wonderful fresco of the period. And you will quickly be led into an intriguing conspiracy that won’t let you go.
You also travel to many key locations in Paris and around (Palais-Royal, Louvre, Versailles, Vincennes, Mont-Louis,Vaux-le-Vicomte and Maincy, Fontainebleau, Saint-Mandé), to other cities of France, as well as Rome and London.
What I really enjoyed in this book was the way the authors started with historical facts and lots of real elements, but reorganized them into a much larger context. Or sometimes they present them like variations on a theme. For instance the theme of poisons, with many pages in French history tainted with it, including an attempt on Louis XIV (later than the book), but here the poison is used on somebody else.
More broadly, you may know about Louis XIV’s jealousy at the success of his finance minister Nicolas Fouquet and the gorgeous castle he had built in Vaux. But what if there was so much more behind, and Fouquet, with his huge money, was preparing a major uprising (within his fortress built on Belle-Ile), all this inspired by his connection with the Templars?
You have to admit this is much more intriguing and fascinating. Fouquet had indeed a huge network. Whether it was connected to the Templars, that’s another story, but why not?
I have seen some readers disappointed by the revelation of the key secret of the book. It may indeed represent nothing to our twenty-first century minds, but that was big deal in the 17th century. Our society has lost so much of its religious dimension, including in culture in general, that we can no longer grasp how relevant and crucial this was back then. Sorry, I have to remain mysterious to avoid spoilers here!
The book portraits a young Sun King more interested in hunting, music, and ladies (Louise de Lavallière plays an important part), than in politics. The whole conspiracy and even the last line of the book show him much less powerful that he thinks he is.
The hero Gabriel, is a fictional character. He’s an actor in Molière’s group and many elements in his life connect masterfully with all the main threads of the story.
There are great descriptions, from squalid Italian and French streets, to gems of architecture, such as the Farnese Palace and Vaux-le-Vicomte.
Apart from the legendary connection between Fouquet and the Templars, the book adopts the position that Cardinal Mazarin was actually Louis XIV’s father. We’ll probably never know for sure. Anne of Austria had indeed an impressive list of lovers, but some historians say that Mazarin was in Rome between 1636 and1639, so he could not have fostered Louis XIV (1638-1715). Anyhow, that fits well with the story line.
Fake news, secret police (Mazarin and Colbert had each his own), spies, double agents, conspiracies, false accusation, blackmail, jealousies, big money, lust for power: sounds familiar in 2016-2017, right? Well, they are already all in this book. Nothing new under the sun… and the time of the Sun King had its fine share of it. Both authors are also politicians, so I’m sure they also wrote from experience!
VERDICT: Meet all the major actors of mid 17th century France through this unrelenting conspiracy and a clever plot containing an age old secret and coded documents.
Authors: Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée
Translator: Sue Dyson
US publication: 4/7/2017
by Gallic Books
was first published in France in 2006
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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this book free of charge from the publisher.
I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.