UK Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Genre: YA, historical fantasy
Paris in 1789 is a labyrinth of twisted streets, filled with beggars, thieves, revolutionaries – and magicians . . .
When seventeen-year-old Camille is left orphaned, she has to provide for her frail sister and her volatile brother. In desperation, she survives by using the petty magic she learnt from her mother. But when her brother disappears Camille decides to pursue a richer, more dangerous mark: the glittering court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Using dark magic Camille transforms herself into the ‘Baroness de la Fontaine‘ and presents herself at the court of Versaille, where she soon finds herself swept up in a dizzying life of riches, finery and suitors. But Camille’s resentment of the rich is at odds with the allure of their glamour and excess, and she soon discovers that she’s not the only one leading a double life . . .
From the description, I expected this book to be lush and luxuriant, full of descriptions of wealth and excess. What I didn’t expect was the way this was used to great effect to provide contrast between the Haves and Have-Nots, and the way this threaded a decent amount of social commentary through the narrative.
Something about this book feels very timely. Set in the days prior to the French Revolution, Camille is a revolutionary thinker trapped by her station. She has seen the damage the current social structure does – the loss of her father’s print shop for the publication of seditious and libellous materials, followed by abject poverty and the death of her parents from smallpox. All around her people are starving as prices rise whilst incomes stagnate, and the aristocrats live untouched. History repeats itself, and given the rising calls for increased taxes on the rich – the world’s billionaires could end world poverty seven times over between them, but rather than paying his staff a decent wage, the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos thinks it would be better to put that money into funding a space programme instead – the topics feel rather near the knuckle. Perhaps it could be seen as heavy-handed, but I wonder if that it because it is just so pertinent to current society. After all, it’s just historical fact, but historical fact which is… politically charged. It’s hard to say for certain, but I did find myself thinking “eat the rich” increasingly more as the book continued.
The way it subtly shows addiction is worth noting too. Camille constantly makes excuses for never stopping the magic, or the gambling. The goalposts are always shifting. First it was enough to pay the rent owed. Then it was enough to cover three months of rent. Then it was enough to move house, and cover the more expensive rent there – and then enough to rent a shop for Sophie and start a printing press for herself. Even as the magic drains and wrecks her, she keeps finding reasons for why she can’t stop yet. The parallels to drug addiction are clear, her hands shake when she isn’t using the magic, it ages her prematurely, and eats at her from the inside out. Add to this a grief she hasn’t finished processing over the literal death of her parents and figurative death of her brother, a flight instinct that never shuts down, and the political climate leading up to the storming of the Bastille, it’s no wonder poor Camille feels like she needs to use a crutch to try and find a way out of the situation. I would warn for triggering material in terms of domestic violence, and portrayal of addiction.
There are so many crossed tensions from different parts of this book, all the different storylines weaving together and bringing their own problems and stressors, but they are all balanced really well. The setting as well is atmospheric without being oppressive – the details really paint a picture and ground the piece in its historical setting neatly, without feeling like it is trying too hard to prove anything.
Whilst the timing of this book was perfect for creating a narrative full of conflict and tension, I found the ending a little… uncomfortable. The storming of the Bastille happens approximately three quarters of the way through the book, momentum for the Revolution is beginning, and 80% of the main cast are aristocrats, but the book ends scarce months – possibly even weeks – after that. Everyone is still in France, there are some murmurs about darker things to come, but nothing more. Which is odd, because the narrative feels completed, not open for sequels, yet we know that over the coming months things are going to become increasingly more dangerous for these characters. It seems strange to leave them at such a point, when it’s not a book naturally crying for further volumes. I’d rather the time jump was a bit longer, rather have seen them protected from history, but for me the ending left them at the beginning of a much greater threat than the one they just faced.
Perhaps my other, minor, niggle would be that the social commentary – whilst timely, apt, and very well executed (eat the rich) – perhaps overshadows the plot at times. I’d liked to have seen more drawing out of Camille’s time at court, of the waters and politics she had to navigate. But that is, as I said, very minor, and I did enjoy the novel a lot.
- A lush fantasy that doesn’t romanticise poverty or shy away from calling out the different standards of living between social classes in a way which – intentionally or otherwise – somewhat mirrors the tensions present in today’s society (eat the rich).
- It also does a good job of portraying addiction, and the impact it can have on a person mentally and physically.
- That said, it was difficult to have a happy ending without perhaps an uncomfortable betrayal of sorts of these values, and there is a slight feeling of “the aristocrats are evil! Except these aristocrats, because we like them.”
- Equally uncomfortable was the fact that the ending left the characters charging headlong into the French Revolution, all in particularly vulnerable positions.
Rating: 4/5 – it was an enjoyable and lush read, I think I would have just liked either that further guarantee of safety for the characters I’d become invested in, and maybe a little more smoothing over from Camille’s initial political mindset to her final position.