REVIEW: The Courtier’s Secret by Donna Russo Morin
Dear Ms. Morin,
I too love “The Three Musketeers” so it was with anticipation that I began reading your book, “The Courtier’s Secret.” Though set during the reign of Louis XIV instead of his father, Louis XIII, I had high hopes for swashbuckling, handsome musketeers and daring do as they fought to save the life of the Queen. While “chick in pants” books aren’t my favorites, with enough verve and skill, I can sometimes overcome my skepticism of their believability.
Jeanne Yvette Mas du Bois has managed to get herself kicked out of the convent in which her parents have placed her for the past few years. For young women of good family, convents are the only source of education, limited though that is, during most of the 17th century.
But Jeanne is sick of the restrictions and toadying she finds there. At seventeen, it’s time for her to take her place at the glittering court of Versailles.
However once there, she discovers a world of toadying on steroids. And quickly learns that her ghastly father plans to marry her to a weak fop. After having found some freedom during the fencing lessons given to her by her uncle, fencing master to the King, Jeanne is determined not to meekly submit to her fate. When she saves the life of a handsome Musketeer, she learns of a plot to kill the Queen. Together with her new found friends and wearing the disguise of a young man, Jeanne will have to work hard to stay a step ahead of a villain determined to see the Queen dead.
About the only time I can stomach historical novels which incorporate known historical people is when it’s done seamlessly. Your book, for the most part, manages that. Louis XIV, his Queen and mistresses, the many courtiers thronging the splendid halls and grounds of Versailles come alive. Their interactions with the fictional characters make sense based on historical records and I never felt that you forced one of your creations into a scene where they would not normally have been.
When the plot against the Queen is first uncovered, I wondered who could be behind it. Why would anyone want this daughter of Spain dead? What political or personal advantage could be gained by her death? When your villain is revealed, it does make sense based on what I know of that person and the things they did to secure power. But I did find it odd that Jeanne takes over two weeks to pass on to the Musketeers some information that she’s learned. Good thing the villain didn’t make a move during that time.
One of the strengths of the book is the sense of the reader “being there” at the lavish court which centered itself on its King. Louis XIV effectively neutered his nobles by devising ever increasingly nonsensical distinctions of rank. The powerful courtiers were left with little choice but to play his game of cut throat snobbery and
obsequiousness. The Battle of the Armchairs between Jeanne’s parents and those of her betrothed would be laughably funny if it weren’t so serious. Life at court must have been an endless source of worry for one misstep could doom you.
We also see the effect of too many unwashed bodies wearing too heavy satin, silk and brocade clothes in an age without air conditioning. As well, finding one’s way around the vast “chateau” would require a remarkable memory. However, as much as I enjoyed reading all the intricacies of life at court, I didn’t want so much of the book to be devoted to this. If Jeanne felt stifled by this life, I felt slightly bored as more endless descriptions of the rooms, gardens, habits, meals and ceremonies were rolled out. By the second half of the book, I was skimming things which added little to the story. I will give you points though for obviously doing your homework.
I’m not sure if you were attempting to mimic a melodramatic, slightly over flowery style of narrative or make the characters more emotionally “French” but the result is a superabundance of adjectives and characters who act like silent screen actors exaggerating every movement for heightened effect. I also noticed something which one of our readers commented negatively on, that being bizarre descriptions of actions.
Jeanne pulled her brown orbs from her friend’s curious face and latched upon the other player…
Like a painter’s brush tenderly rendered, Jeanne felt their touch as his golden orbs caressed her cheek.
Both these passages left me with the impression of pairs of eyes wandering around on their own and getting stuck to another character’s face – not a pretty image.
Jeanne is described as tall for her gender and having always been more physical than most girls. I can believe that Jeanne’s uncle could teach her fencing though I do find it difficult to imagine how they’d find a square foot of unoccupied room at Versailles in which to do it. When she first encounters Henri D’Aubigne, a master fencer himself, she saves his life with some handy sword work of her own. My question is, how could Jeanne have gotten this good if she’s been in a convent for years (either 7 or 10, I forget which) and only at Versailles for a few days? She must really be a quick study or have retained what her uncle must have taught her years ago.
As well, she gets a quick and dirty run down on how to “act like a man” before heading off to meet up with Henri and the other Musketeers. True, they never expect that a woman would attempt this masquerade yet I find it hard to believe that none of them – ever, not once – had the slightest moment of doubt as to her supposed gender. And despite Jeanne’s frequently mentioned disgust at the life at court and of girls who giggle, she’s often quite ready to indulge in meaningless pleasure during fetes and plays all while giggling with her friends.
From your website I see that this is your first published novel. Brava for that and for picking a time and place which I would adore seeing used more often in romance and historical books. The plot makes sense in the context of the era and I liked that Jeanne and her mother manage to devise a way to manipulate her father to their way of thinking which stays true to the actions of all during the book. You picked characteristics for your dramatis personae and then carried them through the entire story. Something which I appreciate. I’m sure that my nitpicks and problems with the story won’t bother some readers at all and I hope that you will return to the wonderful world of dashing Musketeers. C+