Before Versailles by Karleen Koen


Published June 2011 This review of the Kindle Edition, 2012.


Louis XIV is one of the best-known monarchs ever to grace the French throne. But what was he like as a young man—the man before Versailles?

After the death of his prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, twenty-two-year-old Louis steps into governing France. He’s still a young man, but one who, as king, willfully takes everything he can get—including his brother’s wife. As the love affair between Louis and Princess Henriette burns, it sets the kingdom on the road toward unmistakable scandal and conflict with the Vatican. Every woman wants him. He must face what he is willing to sacrifice for love.

But there are other problems lurking outside the chateau of Fontainebleau: a boy in an iron mask has been seen in the woods, and the king’s finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, has proven to be more powerful than Louis ever thought—a man who could make a great ally or become a dangerous foe . . .

Meticulously researched and vividly brought to life by the gorgeous prose of Karleen Koen, Before Versailles dares to explore the forces that shaped an iconic king and determined the fate of an empire.

RHL Classifications

Romantic Biographical Fiction

17th Century

Heat Level 2** (see note)


Review by Caz

Having recently read and reviewed a couple of novels set in or around Revolutionary France, it occurred to me that I’d like to learn some more about French history. I teach French, I speak French (fairly well) and I’ve spent a fair bit of time there in the last couple of years, and realised I knew relatively little about the history of this wonderful country on my doorstep, whose history is so entwined with that of Britain.  So I asked those helpful people over at Goodreads for some recommendations, and Before Versailles was one of the titles suggested.

The story takes place during four months of 1661, the year in which Louis XIV fully assumed the reins of kingship following the death of his trusted adviser Cardinal Mazarin (also widely held to have been Louis’ mother’s lover). There is a large list of dramatis personae at the front of the book giving details of who is related to whom, which it may be helpful to refer to at first (if you’re reading the print version – with the ebook, it’s not so easy!) because Koen sometimes refers to characters by their first names and sometimes by their title. This isn’t a huge problem – just something to be aware of if, like me, you were not familiar with all the different personages in the story.
The author’s style is very easy to read; I found it very clear and quite refreshing in a way. All the characters – the majority of whom are historical figures – are clearly delineated, even the vast numbers of different ladies-in-waiting and other courtiers, and even though the PoV sometimes switches abruptly, I didn’t find it off-putting because I was so engrossed in the events being described.

I absolutely loved all the plotting and intrigue surrounding the court. Spies are everywhere, corruption abounds and everyone (almost) is out for what he or she can get. It’s salacious and frequently immoral (or at the very least amoral) and utterly fascinating to read. There are two threads running throughout the novel – one relating to Louis’ distrust of the wealthy and powerful Viscount Nicolas Fouquet, who seeks to replace Mazarin as Chief Minister of France; and the other concerning the identity of a mysterious boy who wears an iron mask. Having read Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask a number of years ago, I enjoyed reading another version of this famous story.

At twenty-two years of age, Louis is at his most heroic and charming. Something else I thought was very well handled was the way in which Louis undergoes a rite-of-passage, even in the short space of time in which the events of the book take place. At first, he is still somewhat impulsive and seems not quite ready for the huge responsibilities he has to shoulder; but by the end he is very much his own man and has emerged completely from the Cardinal’s shadow. He is very handsome, and all the women of the court are a little in love with him; but even though kind and attentive to his wife, the Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa (who is expecting their first child), he is not in love with her. He becomes infatuated with his brother’s wife, Henriette (sister of Charles II), but soon after falls desperately in love with Louise de la Vallière. Louise is one of Henriette’s ladies – her family is not grand or rich and she is refreshingly innocent and unsullied by the excesses of the court. She does not want fame or fortune from the King and in fact, it is her simplicity and innate goodness that attract Louis. They become lovers, Louise insisting that their relationship must be kept a secret because she is at heart a well-bred, God-fearing young woman.

We don’t see their relationship play out in this book as although Louise is one of the major viewpoints, this is essentially Louis’ story. I found it thoroughly engrossing and will certainly be seeking out more fiction based in and around this, one of the most glorious periods in French history.

Note: I have given this a “heat level” of 2. There are not many sex scenes, and they’re not at all graphic, so it’s really a 1.5.

Thanks to the Sourcebooks and NetGalley for the review copy.

About me

I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two girls and have always been an avid reader. I was introduced to the novels of Jean Plaidy at the age of eleven and have never looked back! I love good, meaty, well-researched historical fiction – whether it’s about real figures (Sharon Penman) or fictional ones (Dorothy Dunnett), but I’m a sucker for a well-written historical romance, too.


No Responses

    • You’re welcome 🙂 I hope you enjoy the book, too, when you get around to reading it. It took a few chapters to get going, but after that it fairly races along as we find out who is spying for whom and get into all the plots and stratagems.

    • I read Through a Glass Darkly years ago, but I really need to read it again. I’m going to get hold of some of her other stuff, too – any recs?

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