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The Shadow Queen

A novel of passion and power in the Sun King’s France.

A spellbinding historical novel about a young woman who rises from poverty to become confidante to the most powerful, provocative and dangerous woman in the 17th century French court: the mistress of the charismatic Sun King.

A rag-poor daughter of a theatrical star leaves the make-believe world of the theatre for the Court—the so-called real world of money and power—only to become embroiled in true dramatic tragedy, emerging as the heroine of her own life-script.

1660, Paris

Claudette’s life is like an ever-revolving stage set. From an impoverished childhood wandering the French countryside with her family’s acting troupe, Claudette finally witnesses her mother’s astonishing rise to stardom in Parisian theaters. Claudette finds working with playwrights Corneille, Molière and Racine to be deeply rewarding, but like all in the theatrical world, she’s socially scorned.

A series of chance encounters pull Claudette into the alluring orbit of Athénaïs de Montespan, mistress to Louis XIV and reigning “Shadow Queen.” Needing someone to safeguard her secrets, Athénaïs offers to hire Claudette as her personal attendant.

Enticed by the promise of riches and respectability, Claudette leaves the world of the theater only to find that court is very much like a stage–with outward shows of loyalty masking more devious intentions. This parallel is not lost on Athénaïs, who fears political enemies are plotting her ruin as young courtesans angle to take the coveted spot in the king’s bed.

Indeed, Claudette’s “reputable” new position is marked by spying, illicit trysts and titanic power struggles. As Athénaïs begins to lose her grip on the Sun King, her use of the magical arts take a dark turn, and Claudette is forced to consider a move that will put her own life at risk. A seductive, gripping novel…

Set against the gilded opulence of a newly-constructed Versailles and the blood-stained fields of the Franco-Dutch war, The Shadow Queen is a seductive, gripping novel about the lure of wealth, the illusion of power, and the increasingly uneasy relationship between two strong-willed women whose actions could shape the future of France.

 

 Chapter 1

Winter was coming—I could smell it. Even so, we headed north, following a cow track across a barren field, away from all the lawless soldiers.

Onward. I shifted little Gaston onto my right hip and set my eyes on the far horizon…

Onward toward Poitiers, where we might earn a meal performing for crowds. News had spread that the King and Court were there, mobilizing for yet another battle.

We had seen the aftermath the day before, corpses rotting in the sun, pickers crawling over the leavings like flies on a harvest table. A sparkling brass buckle, a dagger with a carved hilt, a hat plume, three bone buttons—treasures that could be traded for food.

“We are players, not scavengers,” my father said gravely, turning me away. “There are things we do not do, things we will not do.”
His reproach stung even now.

I pulled the patched woolens up over Gaston’s head to protect him from the cold. He hummed in sleepy protest, sucking on his thumb. Father was right, I knew—we were players, and proud of our calling. We might be hungry, but we would never beg.

I glanced back to see Bravo pulling our cart of costumes and props, our kettle and precious embers. The donkey never stopped, but he never increased his pace either, even when wild dogs threatened.

My parents lagged far behind, hands linked, singing their favorite song, “Le beau Robert.”

My belly cramped, but not from hunger. Was my time upon me?

Thirteen now, my courses had started some moons before. Father and Mother had been jubilant. I must make a formal vow! they theatrically declared, as knights had done in days of old.

I’m a girl, I objected. The ceremonial swearing to uphold the Code of Chivalry marked a boy’s transition into manhood.

My parents—loving any excuse to perform—insisted that it was a perfectly suitable rite to mark their daughter becoming a woman.

So father and I had acted out the ritual before our audience (Mother, with Gaston in her arms)—first the silent prayer, and then the sermon. It had all been pretend, but we were players: we took pretend to heart. I wore a red robe of nobility over a white tunic, symbolizing Purity. My hose and shoes were black, symbolizing Death.

“Swear not to traffic with traitors or give evil counsel!” Father recited the Code in his booming player’s voice. “Swear to observe all fasts.”

“I so swear,” I vowed. We were often without food. I was well-accustomed to want. Ours was a life of fasts.

“Swear never to betray a trust.”

“I swear.” Thinking of Gaston, so credulous and sweet.

“Swear to do what is right, whatever the cost.” This last Father said gently.

“I so swear,” I answered, my hand over my heart.

He tapped my shoulders with our stage-prop sword, dubbing me the Good Knight Claudette, binding me to my vows. A burden, and a blessing.

The clouds cleared as we came to a valley. The sun lit up a meadow dotted with frosted marigold. I lowered Gaston to the ground, my arms aching. He was small for five, but even so, carrying him was heavy work. Giggling, he teetered on his feet. I caught him before he fell.

“Careful, Turnip,” I said, pressing my face into his neck, inhaling his sweet scent, so curiously like fresh bread (making my stomach rumble).

Mother and Father fanned out, foraging for dried berries and grasshoppers, which we ate greedily after removing the heads, legs and wings.

I kept Gaston near. It was a relief that he’d finally learned to hold his water and hinder-fallings, but he was still a baby at heart. I worried that he was so clumsy, spotted with bruises, worried that he’d yet to talk the way other children did—children who teased him cruelly, calling him an idiot, a simple, a fool.

Yet Gaston was far from simple. I’d never won a game of Mill against him! On our wanders, he always seemed to know the right direction to go (when the rest of us were lost), and although he couldn’t talk, he knew when we misspoke a line during a performance. He was a puzzle I couldn’t solve. Mother feared a witch had put a spell on him. Father suspected that the worms we suffered now and again had gotten into his head. But I thought otherwise. I worried that it was something I might have done to him myself, looked away when I should have been watching.

We forded a river at a crude plank bridge, coaxing Bravo over with a bit of parsnip. In the shallows, we drank and splashed our faces. Mother caught minnows and we gobbled them down live. She chewed one for Gaston, making it soft, luring him to eat.

The land was made of chalk and limestone, forgiving and malleable. “There will be caves in these parts,” Father said, kicking his toe into the dirt. It was time to think of shelter for the night. In a cave, we would not be so exposed—to wind, wolves, men.

A narrow path led up to a ridge, which was surmounted by an enormous cross. Its surface gleamed in the fading light.

“Compliments of The Company, no doubt,” my father said, frowning.

The Company of the Blessed Sacrament.

The Company of the Devil, he’d once dared to call it. The secret society did good works by day, but attacked Jews, Romas and players by night—all demons in their view, enemies of the One True Faith. Even some priests were of their number, preaching the stoning of players on festival days.

We were goodly Christians, so why did the Church scorn us? Why could we not take communion or be buried in hallowed ground? Why were we excommunicated, forbidden the comfort of Heaven?

I lifted Gaston into my arms and began the climb up the mountain. He hummed, one long high note, fixing his moon eyes on me, unblinking. His voice was plaintive and high, enchanting to hear. I hummed along with him, the notes vibrating through my head and chest, twining with his. My sweetling—my very own treasure.

The sun was about to set when we found the opening to a cave. Remnants of a wolf carcass, charred logs and a sharpened stick were evidence that the site had been home to humans before. An overhang offered protection from inclement weather.

The slope was wreathed in frost-withered vines, clematis and primulas. On the far side of the valley, atop a rocky height, I could see the city of Poitiers. Church steeples rose above a cloud of smoke.

“Perfect,” Father said, regarding the vista. At the edge of a steep incline, we wouldn’t be taken by surprise.

The floor of the cave was wide and dry, the walls smooth. Holding a rush candle, I saw crude images of large animals painted onto the stone.

Gaston made echoes in the cavern as I hauled in the basket of bedding. “Come help, Turnip,” I sang, for he understood words best when put to tune. He tumbled after me, stumbling. “Doucement, mon petit!”

Outside, Mother set the tiny wood statue of the Virgin in a rock nook and arranged her tokens around it: a bouquet of dried carnations, a corn-husk doll, a chipped tea cup, a rusty key.

“How delicious is pleasure after torment,” she recited in a deep and melodic voice, quoting a line by the great play-write Corneille.

The familiar words rang out across the valley. We might suffer from want, but at least we had poetry.

{Copyright © by Sandra Gulland}

 

 

Click here to download a one-page summary of short review quotes to share. 

“A brilliant and entirely original view of Versailles through the eyes of the obsessed, ambitious Player, Claudette des Oeillets – surrogate shadow of the lovely and dangerous Shadow Queen.Merilyn Simonds, author of The Convict Lover and The Holding

The Shadow Queen is a quick-paced, captivating tale of 17th Century France—from the dramas and destitutions of life in the theatre, to the intrigues and ruthlessness of the royal court—and of the wrenching conflict between familial bonds and the sacrifices a woman must make to survive and thrive. Through the trials and hard-earned triumphs of quick-witted Claudette des Oeillets, maid and confidante of aristocratic, alluring Athénaïs, Sandra Gulland shapes a world rich in historical detail and timeless in its exploration of divided loyalties, power struggles, and the consequences of remaining true to heartfelt ideals.” —Ania Szado, author of Studio Saint-Ex

“Propelled by Sandra Gulland’s brilliant storytelling and her unerring gift for reviving an historical era through dramatic scenes, The Shadow Queen is told through a fascinating perspective—that of the personal attendant and closest confidante of Louis XIV’s all-powerful mistress. The story straddles two worlds—the competitive arena of 17th century French theater and the opulent yet treacherous court of the Sun King. The characters are magnetic and the pace will dazzle you.” —Adrienne McDonnell, author of The Doctor and the Diva

“Sandra Gulland is one of our most gifted historical novelists and once again, she does not disappoint. This vividly drawn tale of a young woman caught up in the dark intrigues of the beautiful, lethal mistress of the Sun King has all the ingredients readers love, blending passion, adventure, pageantry and danger into a heady brew as intoxicating as it is unforgettable.” —C.W. Gortner, author of The Queen’s Vow

A must-read for anyone passionate about the theater and hungry for more of Sandra Gulland’s masterful depictions of life at the court of the Sun King.” —Anne Easter Smith, author of Royal Mistress and A Rose for the Crown

The Shadow Queen is an epic feast for the senses with a cast of characters that includes Molière, Racine, and the Sun King himself, Louis XIV. With this exhilarating exploration of the years of Louis’s reign, full of exquisite details and memorable characters, Sandra Gulland proves herself a master of not only storytelling, but stagecraft and illusion, as well.” — Melanie Benjamin, New York Times Bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife

“Sandra Gulland’s latest will remind readers why they fall in love with the past. Gulland uses her meticulous research with consummate skill, rendering vivid the luxury and squalor of Louis XIV’s France and breathing life into fully formed characters that tug at the heart. Masterful.” —Tasha Alexander, New York Times Bestselling Author of Death In The Floating City

“Sandra Gulland is at the top of her game in The Shadow Queen and that’s saying a lot! From the first page you know you are in the hands of a master storyteller. I just don’t think anyone does it better than Gulland—this book is lyrical, fascinating and seeped in history, drama and emotion. Truly magnificent and an absolute joy to read.” —M.J. Rose, International Bestselling author of The Book Of Lost Fragrances

Fascinating and rich in historical detail, The Shadow Queen brings Claude des Oeillets to full and vivid life as she makes the journey from hungry, roaming player to indispensable attendant of Louis XIV’s mistress. A captivating glimpse into the theatre, court life and black arts of 17th century Paris.” —Cathy Marie Buchanan, author of The Painted Girls Online reviews

Just One More Chapter: “I adored The Shadow Queen right from the first page.” 

Words and Peace: “This is the first book I’ve read by Sandra Gulland, and I’m hooked! Indeed, what is not to love in this portrait of 17th century France?”

The Pittsburg Examiner: “The Shadow Queen is a fantastic novel.”

A Bookish Affair: “… historical fiction fans will eat it up!”

Leeanna.com: “I just had a love affair with this novel. Both times I read it, I couldn’t put it down. The smooth writing, the historical detail, the interesting story — everything together submerged me so completely into Claudette’s world. My eyes hated it because I’d just keep flipping page after page.”

Unabridged Chick:  “I inhaled this novel.”

Turning the Pages:  “I read this one in a day and thought it was so wonderful that I’ve already got another of the author’s works on hold at the library.”

VVB32 Reads:  “I really liked how this book got into the some of the nitty gritty and behind-the-scenes action in the world of theatre as well as with the royal court life.”

Gilmore Guide to Books: “… a marvelous escape … “

Booking Mama: The Shadow Queen would make an interesting selection for book clubs. … Highly recommended to fans of historical fiction.”

Kris Waldherr Books: “Gulland’s top-notch research and lush writing offer a richly immersive experience into the shadow side of seventeenth-century France”

The Free Lance Star: “… a remarkably different and very interesting historical read.”

Reading the Past:  “These vivacious characters and scenes beg the question of why more novelists haven’t made use of this fabulous material.”

Library of Clean Reads: “This historical fiction is gripping as it reveals human traits and desires such as ambition, the lure of wealth, the illusion of power, and most important, family loyalty.”

Click here for music of the Baroque period.

Who is the Shadow Queen? A note about the title.

For suggestions on further reading on the era of the Court of the Sun King, click here.

Click here for my Pinterest board on The Shadow Queen.

 

 

Reading-group-quide1

Click here to download a copy for discussion.

1. How are the worlds of the theatre and the Court similar? How are they different?

2. Claudette tells herself that she’s going to work at Court for the good of her family. Do you believe her?

3. “The shadow queen” is the term used for a king’s official mistress. Clearly, in this novel, Athénaïs is a shadow queen. In what ways in Claudette a shadow queen as well?

4. What do you think counted for Athénaïs’s downfall?

5. Discuss Claudette’s and Athénaïs’s relationship.What was it about Athénaïs that so attracted Claudette? What was it that Athénaïs saw in Claudette?

6. Discuss the position of those who worked in theatre in seventeenth-century French society. Was it justified? Hypocritical? Unjust?

7. A little over one hundred years after the events of this novel, the French Revolution began. In part, the Revolution was a revolt against the Catholic Church. What events in The Shadow Queen hint at a dissatisfaction of the French people with Church policy?

8. The Church was a very powerful influence during this time period, and yet many people were enthralled by the very magical potion, séances, fortune telling and charms that the Church frowned upon. What role does magical ritual play in this novel?

9. What movie actors would you chose to play the parts of Claudette, Alix, Athénaïs, Madame Voisin, Louvois and the King?

10. In what ways does Claudette change over the course of the novel? Athénaïs? Madame Voisin? Gaston? Alex?

11. Who was your favourite character? (And why?)