I became a Sandra Gulland fan years ago, when I read her Josephine B. trilogy. It remains one of my favorite works of historical fiction. I’ve had Mistress of the Sun on my shelf for a while now and finally decided to pick it up.
About the Book:
We first meet Louise de la Vallière — known as Petite — as a child of just six years old. She has wandered off from her father to watch a Roma woman perform on horseback, and Petite is transfixed. She finds her way to the Romas’ horses, where she falls in love with an unbroken White aptly named Diablo. Though the horse is wild and so dangerous that the Romas are willing to sell him cheap, Petite insists her father purchase the animal, and once home, she does everything in her power to tame him.
This peculiar, precocious, strong-willed, horse-loving little girl is destined to become the mistress of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. The winding path that leads her there — and what happens when she arrives — are the subjects of Mistress of the Sun.
One of the problems with historical fiction is that you usually know (or at least suspect) how it will turn out. No matter how great the love between Louise and Louis, they remain mistress and king; they’re never going to run off into the sunset together to start a life of happiness and obscurity, no matter now badly you want them to. And so for me, really good historical fiction has to get so deeply into its characters that I don’t mind the ending being fixed.
Though both of Gulland’s narratives are absorbing, one accomplishes that character depth better than the other, in my opinion. (Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two, but I can’t help myself!) The Josephine B. trilogy is written in the first person; Mistress of the Sun is written in a limited third that occasionally jumps to a character other than Petite. The former is styled as diary entries, whereas the latter is a straightforward narrative. And where Josephine gets three whole books in which to tell her story, Petite gets only one. The ending of neither is what I, as a reader, wanted for the characters, and yet I feel an attachment to and fondness for the Josephine books that isn’t there with Mistress of the Sun. I think that’s due in a large part to the way in which the two main characters are presented and developed.
Despite the differences I’ve just highlighted, I recognized plenty of Gulland’s hallmarks that the two works share. Both stories are dripping with historical flavor in a subtle, not-at-all-overpowering way. Gulland has a talent for working period details into the fabric of her novels, from furnishings and clothing to superstitions and vocabulary to social customs. Characters besides the main ones have depth and intrigue, standing out as individuals in what could, in other hands, be a crowded and confusing landscape of personalities. The research is careful, but the author skillfully employs her imagination as needed to smooth out gaps and fill in holes. And the writing is quite enjoyable to read.
If this review sounds negative toward Mistress of the Sun, that’s not my intention. Petite is a fascinating character, someone you root for throughout, and her life is an interesting one, to be sure. It’s less that Mistress of the Sun has any particular flaws and more that I can’t help comparing it — perhaps unfairly — to a set of novels by the same author that I fell in love with and continue to list among my favorites.
The Verdict: Enjoyable
Regardless of my obviously biased review (sorry!), I think readers who enjoy good historical fiction will find lots to like about Mistress of the Sun. It has interesting characters, a strong story, and a rich setting — even if the bonds of history do keep the ending from being what many readers may want!
Have you ever found your love (or hatred) for one work by a particular author flavors how you feel about all his or her others?