By Sophie Perinot – This romantic adventure covers the strife-riven period of French history from 1564 to 1572, near the end of the Valois lineage and the rise of the Bourbons. The central character is Princess Marguerite (Margot), whose father is dead and whose brother Charles is now king of France. Only three years older than she, Charles, like everyone else in the household, is guided and ruled by their mother, Queen Catherine de Médicis (yes, those infamous Médicis of Florence).
Ignored by her mother through most of her childhood, Margot is anxious to join her court and gain her favor. When she finally does arrive at court, around age eleven, she finds it a dangerous stew of plots and jealousies, revenge and murder. An uneasy peace between the country’s Catholic majority, to which the aristocracy belongs, and the Protestant Huguenots threatens to dissolve.
Margot falls in love with the handsome young Duc de Guise, but her family is determined she have a royal marriage. She is little more than a pawn on the political chessboard of Europe, but if she refuses to play, it could cost her her life and that of the Duc. The outbreak of war with the Huguenots tosses the fate of her family and her love into the air, and it lands in a most unexpected place. By the time her family finally finds her a suitable and willing marriage partner, it’s clear that political considerations, not love, are uppermost. Age nineteen, and with a reviled husband, she displays considerable (and rather suddenly acquired) political acumen.
Marguerite de Valois is a historical character well known in France for an eventful, sometimes scandalous life, much of which takes place after this book’s conclusion. Margot matures during novel, but none of the other characters much change, despite additional years, challenges, and demands on them. They remain rather two-dimensional in Perinot’s treatment, and I would especially like to have seen more probing of the character of Queen Catherine, for example.
Authors of historical fiction often must go beyond surface events and motives to explore their characters’ actions. Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels—turned into memorable theatricals—about Thomas Cromwell are a perfect example, as is this treatment of Catherine of Aragon. Occasionally Perinot’s dialog seems too modern, but despite these quibbles (and a few startling grammatical errors—where was the editor?), it is an exciting read about a period I knew too little of. Margot was the subject of a famous novel by Alexandre Dumas, pere, on which a 1994 French movie (La Reine Margot) was based.
The reader would have been well served if the book included a family tree of the Valois clan and their cousins who appear in this story, a list of the principal characters (having three main characters named Henri didn’t make it easy to follow, though Perinot handled this reasonably well), and perhaps a map.