Published by Doubleday
Publication date: April 8th 2014
Louis XIV may have been a fascinating king but thankfully for readers, author Sandra Gulland prefers to focus on the woman behind the man. In The Shadow Queen, that woman is Athénaїs de Montespan, an aristocratic beauty who is able to pull the King’s interest away from his longtime mistress and claim him for herself. Forget the Queen, apparently she is too shy and speaks little French and is, therefore of no consequence. Unfortunately, for Athénaїs, Louis is a man whose need for beauty is constantly changing and difficult to satisfy in the long term. In order to maintain her power over him Athénaїs needs someone she can trust with her secrets and rely on to help her keep the King’s attention—at any cost.
To that end, we are introduced to Claudette des Oeillets a performer who meets Athénaїs when they are both still young girls. They form a bond that follows them through one’s rise to power (even if hidden) and the other’s desperate attempts to keep herself and her family alive. Although Athénaїs is the mistress of the King and leads a life of unparalleled luxury, it is Claudette’s story that makes The Shadow Queen such gripping reading. After her father’s death when she is thirteen she is left to take care of her family. Despite the antipathy of the church to actors, Claudette decides to take her family to Paris to try and work again in theater. Once there, she does manage to get work and her mother is able to act at the famed Marais Theater. Gulland’s vivid imagination and copious research mean that the back streets and back stages of Paris come to life. Playwrights such as Racine, Moliere and Corneille battle for the King’s favor in an effort to ensure their success. In the same way that there are two worlds at court, there are two in the theater—what goes on onstage and what is happening behind the scenes. Gulland doesn’t hold back the details in any of these worlds, giving the reader full access to the illusion and to the toil that makes it happen.
This is especially true in Claudette’s life with Athénaїs. Whatever the spoiled chit wants, she gets and it is Claudette who does the getting, no matter how distasteful or onerous the task. Athénaїs is part of a widespread circle at the court of Louis XIV that believed in alchemy and, according to rumors, much worse. Gulland again draws on historical fact by introducing the character of Madame Voisin and the potions she mixes potions to keep the King attached to Athénaїs. When a new, much younger woman arrives at court Athénaїs is driven to take steps that Claudette cannot condone but must endure for the sake of the money she is paid.
It is the almost constant disparity between the life of Athénaїs and Claudette that makes The Shadow Queen such a marvelous escape. Athénaїs is spoiled and self-absorbed, completely unaware of Claudette’s life and what she sacrifices in her service and Claudette has no understanding of what the King’s patronage means for Athénaїs. Brought together by chance, held together by fate, will they be pulled apart by one dangerous act? And if so, who will pay the price?