Translated by Sue Dyson
Reviewed by Helen Skinner
This fascinating and complex historical thriller is set in 1661 at the court of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV. As the novel opens, Cardinal Mazarin, Chief Minister to the young king, is dying. Having effectively ruled France alongside Anne of Austria throughout Louis’ early years, the balance of power is set to change with his death. When a fire breaks out in Mazarin’s palace, some incriminating coded documents are stolen from the dying Cardinal – documents which must be prevented from falling into the wrong hands. The theft sparks a power struggle among rival factions, with political figures as prominent as Nicolas Fouquet and Jean-Baptiste Colbert drawn into a race to find the mysterious papers.
Also drawn into this dangerous game – much against his will – is Gabriel de Pontbriand, an aspiring young actor who has come to Paris to pursue his dream of a career in the theatre. Mazarin’s stolen documents unexpectedly come into Gabriel’s possession and, to his horror, he recognises the signature at the bottom of one of the papers. Caught between the schemes of unscrupulous politicians on one side and a secretive religious brotherhood on the other, Gabriel finds himself at the heart of a conspiracy which has the potential to change the future of France and its monarchy forever.
If The Sun King Conspiracy can be said to have a main protagonist, it’s Gabriel – carried along by a sequence of events outside his control, he is the character with whom our sympathies lie – but the novel does have a huge cast, at times feeling almost like a who’s who of seventeenth century French history. The playwright Molière, the king’s mistress Louise de La Vallière, architect François d’Orbay and author of fairy tales Charles Perrault all pass through its pages and all have a part to play in the unfolding of the conspiracy…or maybe that should be conspiracies, as there are several and every character in the story is involved in at least one of them!
The scale of the novel, together with its fast pace and twisting, turning plot, could mean that some readers will find it overwhelming. Fortunately, I have recently read Alexandre Dumas’ d’Artagnan novels Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne, which cover roughly the same period of history, so I already knew a little bit about some of the people and events concerned. D’Artagnan himself even appears briefly in the story, in his position of captain of the Musketeers of the Guard. I found it interesting to see how Jégo and Lépée chose to portray historical characters who have been written about so many times before, casting some as heroes and others as villains.
If, however, the reign of the Sun King is not a subject with which you’re familiar, some concentration will be needed to unravel this complicated tale of political intrigue, murder and betrayal. The chapters are very short, each one headed with a different time, date and location, moving like a whirlwind between one set of characters and another as the story progresses towards its conclusion and secrets are finally revealed. And what of the conspiracies themselves? Well, some of the novel’s many mysteries feel fully resolved, but others – including the central conspiracy involving the mysterious brotherhood – left me slightly confused and wishing for more detail.
While it would have been nice to have been able to read this novel in its original French, this English translation by Sue Dyson is very clear and easy to read and I had no problems with it. Despite the convoluted plot, the number of characters and the constant jumping around in time and place – or perhaps because of these things – I did find this a very enjoyable story. I particularly liked the vivid descriptions of some of the places visited by Gabriel and the other characters: the woods near Versailles, the Palais-Royal Theatre in Paris, Fouquet’s spectacular château at Vaux-le-Vicomte and the great fortress at Vincennes.
As well as being entertained by this novel, I also came away from it feeling that I’d learned a lot about the court of Louis XIV and life in seventeenth century France. The Sun King Conspiracy, I think, is a book that will appeal to both conspiracy theorists and historical fiction fans alike.
Helen blogs at She Reads Novels
Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée, The Sun King Conspiracy (Gallic Books, 2016), 978-1910477359, 445 pp., paperback.
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