A tale of intrigue at the court of Louis XIV
It’s no surprise, surely, that I asked to review this book. With the promise of intrigue and danger at the court of the Sun King, I thought I was in line for a delectable swashbuckler, which would doubtless be all the more interesting for my recent wanderings around Versailles. If only I had read the back of the book first! Here I would have learned that the intrigue was less courtly than esoteric, and that the book focused on ‘a religious brotherhood, guardian of a centuries-old secret’. Da Vinci Code-shaped alarm bells would have started to ring. However, I didn’t see this and, in the end, this strange hybrid of a book – half channelling Dan Brown, half Dumas – simply ended up feeling rather limp, for all its earnest attempts at adventure.
Gabriel de Pontbriand, a runaway gentleman slumming it in Paris in 1661, is secretary to the playwright Molière. While working in the theatre one day, he is inadvertently dragged into the heart of a mystery when a young thief, running from a robbery in the office of Cardinal Mazarin, plunges through the roof to his death. He is carrying a portfolio of mysterious coded papers, which almost literally fall into Gabriel’s lap and which, intrigued, he carries home to peruse. Most of them make no sense at all, but he is shocked to discover that one bears the signature of his father, who vanished when Gabriel was a small boy and whom he has thought dead ever since. Suddenly these enigmatic documents acquire a profound significance for Gabriel, who sees his chance to solve the mystery of his father’s disappearance.
Unfortunately for Gabriel, he isn’t the only one interested in these papers. They are being hunted by the members of a sacred society which has existed for hundreds of years in order to protect a Secret (it’s written with a capital S throughout the book), which could destroy the very foundations of civilisation as we know it (because top-secret religious brotherhoods don’t get out of bed for anything less than earth-shaking levels of enigma). To make matters more complex for Gabriel, the question of the missing document also becomes a central focus of the struggle for political power between two factions, following Cardinal Mazarin’s death: that of the Superintendent, the wealthy Nicolas Fouquet, and that of Mazarin’s creature Colbert, who will stop at nothing to bring Fouquet crashing to the ground. Both parties grow increasingly intrigued by the young actor who has wandered into the middle of their plotting. And so Gabriel finds himself at the heart of a web of conflicting interests, both religious and political, which are closing in and will let nothing stand in their way.
What is it about hidden brotherhoods and suppressed gospels that continues to fascinate, I wonder? Part of the problem with The Sun King Rises is that we’re expected, in the end, to be on the side of the brothers in their quest to preserve their Secret, and yet we aren’t told anything about the nature of the Secret until the final pages – and even then it’s rather vague and anticlimactic. The whole notion of the Secret actually feels like an extra wheel which wasn’t needed, because Jégo and Lépée weave a good web of old-fashioned base-level intrigue around the question of Mazarin’s fortune, and the identity of Louis XIV’s true father. The ambition swirling around the French court would have given the book quite enough momentum without the now-hackneyed scene of black-hooded extremists gathering in damp Roman cellars and Jesuitical chapels.
It is an interesting fact, though not necessarily relevant to the book’s quality, that The Sun King Rises is a collaborative work by two authors, both of whom are politicians rather than professional novelists. This does add a certain piquancy to the scenes of unscrupulous political ambition, but I felt that the double authorship led to some variances in quality. I’ve no idea how these two gentlemen wrote the book, and I suspect that any real stylistic differences would have been smoothed out by Sue Dyson’s English translation, but the fact remains that the prose is generally very stilted, enlivened by rare flashes of lyricism. It’s a curious combination. If I were to describe the plot to you in detail, it would sound exciting and fast paced: a gripping historical thriller. But in reality the writing is rather laboured and its weight means that any spark of humour à la Dumas is snuffed out. As an example of the style – overly wordy and repetitive – I offer this brief extract:
‘Let us forget the past so that we may work for the greatness of France,’ concluded the King, standing up as Fouquet bowed low. ‘Monsieur d’Artagnan awaits me and I am in a hurry to hunt out that full-grown stag whose boldness my master of hounds so praises,’ added Louis XIV as he strode out of the room to join his hunting party.
As you can see, the dialogue is somewhat awkward. Who would really speak like that? There are finer sections, of course, and I’ve chosen a particularly ‘ouch’ moment for my example – perhaps it sounds better in French – but the fact remains that a sympathetic editor could have done much to add to the novel’s drama and energy. Oh, and that reference to d’Artagnan? The book is positively littered with examples of the ‘Good Morning Dr Johnson’ school of historical fiction. Of course the captain of Musketeers is none other than d’Artagnan; similarly, we have cameos from Charles Le Brun, Lully, Charles Perrault and the chef Vatel. Even Louise de la Vallière turns out to have been a childhood chum of Gabriel’s, and offers a rather doomed flash of romance for our noble hero. Obviously, one can only go so far to avoid this kind of name-dropping in a novel set at the pulsing heart of the Sun King’s court, but I think my point is that it could have been woven together much more sympathetically.
I get the feeling that I’ve been very hard on this novel, but I felt that there were opportunities here which were missed, both at an authorial and editorial level, which could have made it a bit more streamlined. It would have been great to have something a bit subtler, which really drew out the characterisation and did a little more to put the people, rather than the Secret, at the heart of it all. I just couldn’t even care for the Secret any more by the end of the novel. As usual, I confess, I’m rather out on my own in my limited enthusiasm. The the book has been translated into various languages and seems to have enjoyed a great deal of success in France, so you may well feel inclined to argue with me, and I’ll be happy to hear another point of view. It’s probably worth giving this a go if you’re more tolerant of the Dan Brown secret-brotherhood kind of fiction, because I’ve no doubt I’ve been lukewarm because I’m not overly fond of the sub-genre. Indeed, you can just go and check the glowing reviews on Amazon to hear some very different opinions. Plus, the excellent Helen, whose opinion I rate very highly, was much more enthusiastic about it than I feel able to be.
The story has been left open for a sequel, which may already have been published… but, alas, I don’t think I’ll be reading it.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review.