Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach Tomlinson
Athénaïs, mistress of Louis XIV of France, was known as "the shadow queen" because of the influence she had on the king. A daughter of the Duke of Mortemart, and the wife of the Marquis de Montespan, Athénaïs was accustomed to luxury and high position from childhood. Her high-handedness won enemies who could not attack her directly but made their hatred of her known by attacking less powerful people who were close to her.
This novel centers not on Athénaïs, but on her far more sympathetic companion Claude des Oeillets. Claude is an impoverished commoner from a family of actors, whose profession is so scandalous they are barred from church services and, on death, cannot be buried in holy ground unless they have formally renouced their work on the stage. Louis enjoyed and patronized the theater, but it was almost unthinkable for a woman like Claude to live at court. Athénaïs's high connections and brazen self-interest made it possible. Much of Claude's story takes place before her arrival at court. The French theater of the late 1600s was in its golden age, with the great playwrights Corneille, Molière and Racine writing for rival troupes and producing some of their best work. The Shadow Queen brings this theatrical world alive in all its shabby glory. Ironically, Claude finds her stage background an asset at court, where knowing how to play a role is essential. This ability, along with her quick wits, becomes important when one of Athénaïs's most vicious enemies makes Claude his target.
Gulland's earlier novel Mistress of the Sun takes place during the same time period, revolving around a different mistress of Louis XIV, Louise de la Vallière, still his "official" mistress after he installed Athénaïs as his unofficial favorite. Readers who enjoyed Mistress of the Sun will find a completely fresh and different story in The Shadow Queen. Though related, the two novels can be read and appreciated independently, in any order. (2014, 317 pages including an Author's Note about the history behind the story)More about The Shadow Queen at Powell's Books or Amazon.com