A bit of a nightmare for obsessive compulsives like myself to categorise neatly – this could as happily (or unhappily) slot into several of my site’s genres: Historical Fiction, Novel, Fantasy, SF – or even into some I haven’t allocated, such as Alternative History, Magic Realism, or even Women’s Literature. That being said, it’s not as if this book is clumsily trying to work out what it is – it’s quite coherent. McIntyre comfortably drew on a range of ideas.
This is a very ‘girls’ own’ book, but only in the way that a million books are ‘boys’ own’. The crowd pleasing is more informed by Mills and Boon than Raiders of the Lost Ark (you win by getting the man of your dreams rather than punching/shooting/impaling the bad guy). The perspective is very clearly female and quite deliberately touches on issues of gender power/disempowerment (as well as, for example, foregrounding the inconvenience of menstruation, which can turn up with blithe disregard to action). Moreover it’s a daydream: just as so many heroes are stronger, smarter and nobler, our heroine is similarly superlative in beauty, intelligence, horseriding, talent, empathy and integrity. It’s hardly pantomime, but the extremes of valour and dastardliness of lead characters like Marie-Josèphe, Lucien, and the pope lean this book more towards blockbuster movie than realistic novel. And I suppose why not? With both Star Trek and Wars books to her credit, McIntyre is no stranger to blockbusters, and I have an idea this was originally conceived as a movie, where characters are generally forgiven for being (indeed, encouraged to be) that much larger than life, and that much less textured. This extremism also allowed her to touch on a favourite theme of mine: the power of innocence. Marie-Josèphe’s lack of worldliness and cunning could have been her undoing in this mire of intrigue and depravity, but McIntyre instead shows this as refreshing and strong.
Daydream characters aside, McIntyre drops her bodice-ripping into a well researched and presented court of Louis XIV. She obviously loves the period, and understands that you don’t need to invent over-the-top extravagances to beef up the history: it would be hard to imagine some of the whims so lavishly catered to because they came from the king. While she doesn’t soar with wit, you can see the influence of a movie like ‘Ridicule’, and the dialogue is occasionally maliciously urbane. Many of the settings are fascinating and feel authentic (what would I know?). Perhaps odd to talk of authenticity given the utterly fantastical and central ‘sea-monster’, but I enjoyed plausible way she played the ‘what if’ game of dropping something like an alien into that time and place (a comparison being the way District 9 used aliens to portray, at times, gritty realism). What would the natural historians make of it? The clergy? The court? The people?
Probably the aspect I least enjoyed was how preachy it got. Some writers can portray alternative times to challenge, or at least highlight, the assumptions of their own – but this book does the opposite. The moral value of any character is explicitly shown to be proportional to how far their attitudes would fit with mainstream contemporary ones. As on amazon "dhowenstine" insightfully pointed out:
The novel's heroine, Marie-Josephe St. Croix, is a stark anachronism at the court of Versailles. Although Marie-Josephe's ideas and worldview are undeniably sympathetic, she epitomizes a thoroughly contemporary ideal -- her views on slavery, education, religion, and the rights of women are all modern ideas -- and, as such, she fails to be a believable character.
It’s a strikingly condescending view of history: people were so silly back then that we need to rewrite them to make them respectable. This isn’t to say I’d always disagree (indeed, I’m a child of this age), and I daresay, for example, some of the sexual predation poorer women suffered from richer men at the time was real, and their presumption of ownership rightly vilified in this book. But the blithe and easy dismissal of any theists and/or monogamists as repressed, lying fools in contrast to our paragon permissive atheist was a bit much. Doubtless there *were* ignorant and repressive believers, but in her research McIntyre surely must have come across, for example, the not particularly obscure contemporary French mathematician, scientist, inventor, wit, writer – and passionate believer - Blaise Pascal. And his sister Jacqueline. Louis XIV was strongly aware of him, unsuccessfully trying to destroy all copies of his ‘Provincial Letters’, written in defence of his sister’s convent and beliefs (but he was frustrated by their popularity, Voltaire later praising it as "the best-written book that has yet appeared in France.").
Pascal and his sister Jacqueline are a fascinating foil to Marie-Josèphe and Yves de la Croix. The Pascals were also precociously smart and talented, and had a large impact on each other. They both also had an impact at court, Blaise with the aforementioned ‘Letters’, and, to quote the unimpeachable Wikipedia:
Like so many others, Étienne [Pascal, their father] was eventually forced to flee Paris because of his opposition to the fiscal policies of Cardinal Richelieu, leaving his three children in the care of his neighbor Madame Sainctot, a great beauty with an infamous past who kept one of the most glittering and intellectual salons in all France. It was only when Jacqueline performed well in a children's play with Richelieu in attendance that Étienne was pardoned.
Tell me that sort of amazing material would be out of place in this novel. Likewise the first sentence of the extract below – but note how the following sentences would have to be excised:
Like her brother she was a prodigy, composing verses when only eight years old, and a five-act comedy at eleven. In 1646, the influence of her brother converted her to Jansenism. In 1652, she took the veil, and entered Port-Royal Abbey, Paris, despite the strong opposition of her brother, and subsequently was largely instrumental in the latter's own final conversion.
For all the many similarities between the actual Blaise and Jacqueline Pascal, and the imagined Marie-Josèphe and Yves de la Croix, this book could not even consider including key aspects of the former. Notice how the events of the book are almost an exact reversal: Marie-Josèphe defies her brother by refusing to consider going to a convent (hooray!). How could you have a strong, intelligent female character who deliberately chose the church over her relative freedom? (What the ???) How could you include a renaissance prodigy – maths, science, satire, invention – like Blaise, who also passionately tried to convert people? How could you have a respectable female lead who actually lead her brother to rather than away from the church?
In her dismissal of nuns (or, really, any clergy) as humourless, stupid and vicious, - merely contemptible - McIntyre sweeps up strong, intelligent, passionate women like Jacqueline as if they never existed – which is, in a way, more condescending and brutal than some of her most sexist characters. I’m not suggesting that McIntyre should betray her own beliefs and write a Christian tract – but I am saying she need not restrict herself to such appalling straw men. It is possible to respect people who don’t agree with you. In historical fiction it’s vital: authentic characters almost inevitably have key alternate beliefs purely as a function of context.