Published by Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: November 1st 2012
A young girl with a particular, peculiar gift—the ability to read the future in a bowl of water, or, as it was known at the time, an oracle glass. Geneviève is not blessed in any of the ways important to girls in 17th century Paris. She has a club foot and a twisted spine so her mother sends her away shortly after her birth. It is only when her father discovers he has a daughter he knows to be truly his (unlike Geneviève’s brother and sister) that he finds her and brings her back to the family home and teaches her in the way he sees fit, with mathematics, philosophy, Latin and Greek, making her even more unusual. His unexpected and mysterious death brings an end to her life as she knows it and when her uncle rapes her in a fit of fury upon finding that her father’s hidden fortune has been left to her, she runs away.
Only fifteen years old, Geneviève has few options and so accepts the help of La Voisin, an alchemist who also tells fortunes. It is La Voisin who decides that with such an old soul and unique talent Geneviève shall be remade into the Madame de Morville, a seer and relic over 120 years old, whose preserved face and figure are the result of a lost potion. Geneviève moves into this new life, wearing a corset with steel bars to straighten her spine, a padded shoe to correct her limp, and pounds of funereal, heavy make-up to age her beyond recognition. For her, it is the only path to her one goal—wreaking vengeance on her uncle and mother. Slowly but surely she moves into her new persona:
The marquise was getting to be an old friend of mine. She lived in my head, offering comments on my daily life, bothering me at night when I didn’t find sleep easy. A shrewd, sharp-tempered old lady, she coined aphorisms and told lies about her girlhood to me. She bothered me with horrid observations on my character and activities, denounced courtiers with impunity, and cackled at my annoyance.
However, La Voisin’s help comes at a price—literally. In return for training, housing, and clothing Geneviève, as well as later setting her up in her own house with servants, and introducing her to wealthy clients, she extracts a monthly payment. Fortunately, Geneviève’s gift is real so her business grows rapidly but it binds her to La Voisin in ever tightening bonds. As her career expands all the way to royal circles the peril she faces increase. While she has escaped from the depravity of her family life she now moves amongst people who earn their living as card-sharps, fortune-tellers, alchemists, and even Satanists. She witnesses transactions as innocuous as love potions for young girls to those completely depraved—black masses that sometimes include human blood. She comes to realize that La Voisin’s power is much greater than just that of an astute businesswoman with an ability to read people.
The King of France is a poor fool in the thrall of the creatures of night and superstition, who have placed a woman at the height of power through the Black Mass, and who have convinced her to drug him with aphrodisiacs. They have only to say the word and the aphrodisiacs can be replaced with more fatal stuff. The supreme level of power, La Voisin said. We rule through their weakness.
Author Judith Merkle Riley starts with the very real events and characters from the Affair of the Poisons (1677-1682), but in an admirable feat of imagination expands that real-life scandal into a living underworld peopled with the charlatans, magicians, grifters, and courtesans who thrived during the Sun King’s reign. La Voisin was at the center of the controversy, running a network of witches, fortune-tellers, and spies, all catering to the King’s voracious mistress, the Marquise de Montespan. The Oracle Glass is engrossing reading of the type one picks up and cannot release. It is packed with all the intimate details of the goings-on behind the scenes of court life and of all the people who supported that world. Riley’s rich use of these details give the book an authenticity that keeps it from veering too far into the fantastical realm of witchery. Instead, it feels like peering behind the curtain of a great stage play to see what’s really happening.