I knew that Judith Merkle Riley wrote historical fiction with strong female characters and a hint of the occult. These qualities put her on my “to be read” list. But that she had written a novel about “The Affair of the Poisons,” a macabre scandal from the age of Louis XIV, put her on the “move aside, all other books, I must read this immediately” list. What this says about me, I leave to the speculation of the reader.
Geneviève Pasquier, a serious young gentlewoman of the 1600s, isn’t a likely candidate to become a seer. She prefers reading Descartes and the Roman stoics to brewing love potions or telling fortunes. But when an assault forces her from her dysfunctional family home, she is adopted into a shady network of crystal gazers and amateur pharmacists who make their living on the fringes of respectable Paris.
Young Geneviève reinvents herself as the Marquise de Morville, a supposedly-150-year-old widow who stomps about Paris crankily lamenting the good old days of Henri IV and reading her customers’ futures in a basin of water. She refers customers to her colleagues for love spells, beauty elixirs, and other, less savory services–pins in a wax doll, a black mass, or a discreet abortion. Business is good, but her mentor, a Donna Corleone known to history as La Voisin, has ambitions that carry her protégé into dangerous circles, among the cutthroat “gilded wolves” of Versailles and the would-be mistresses of the king.
Geneviève’s visions of the future are the only paranormal aspect to a historical fantasy that is otherwise chockablock with historical detail. Riley is the kind of writer who never refers generically to a “carriage” when she can refer specifically to a sedan chair, a fiacre, or a vinaigrette. While many of the characters are historical, the secondary, fictional characters are equally entertaining. Pages from the ending I was already writing in my head the further adventures of Sophie, the ladies’ maid who conveniently becomes “possessed” by one of the ranking powers of Hell when she doesn’t feel like doing the chores (“Astaroth didn’t like dusting because he refused to bend over”).
This was a great blend of chills, history, and even some romance. For another entertaining police caper in old Paris, you could try Louis Bayard’s The Black Tower. If you’re more interested in history than fiction, don’t miss Anne Somerset’s scholarly-but-dishy The Affair of the Poisons, which covers this episode specifically, or The Poisoner’s Handbook, which covers poisoners and their “inheritance powders” in general.
Check the WRL catalog for The Oracle Glass.