THE MOON AND THE SUN
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Vonda McIntyre's latest novel, The Moon and the Sun, may best be described as alternate natural history. Set during the reign of Louis XIV, France's Sun King, McIntyre's tale opens with the capture, by Father Yves de la Croix, of a sea monster for Louis's menagerie. De la Croix brings back two of the creatures to Versailles, a living female and a dead male, for the King's entertainment.
And entertainment is what the Sun King's Versailles was all about. Yves dissects the dead sea monster in front of an audience made up of Louis XIV and his various courtiers. When Yves and his sister Marie-Josephe are anxious to complete the dissection before the sea monster's corpse can rot, they must wait until Louis XIV has the time in his schedule to attend the process.
The main focus of the novel, however, is Marie-Josephe de la Croix. Only recently, Marie-Josephe arrived at Louis's court from a convent school in her native Martinique. Spending her time as a lady-in-waiting to Mademoiselle, Louis's neice, Marie-Josephe has been at court for six months at the time her brother arrives with his pair of sea monsters. Nevertheless, Marie-Josephe remains a cloistered innocent. Much of the novel seems to follow Marie-Josephe's descent from the ethereal existance she lived on Martinique to the more earthly realm of Versailles.
One of the most salient features of this period, among the French aristocracy, was an acceptance of form over function. Appearance frequently took primacy over actual accomplishment and the aforementioned goal of entertainment took precedence over nearly everything else. McIntyre manages to capture this mood extremely well. Unfortunately, the result is a lack of depth in many of the characters who appear less complex than the mask society forces them to wear at any given moment. Their motivations seem driven by pleasing the king and their desire to appear in the roles society expects of them. Perhaps needless to say, this makes Marie-Josephe, who doesn't understand her role in society, and the Duke de Chartres, who is rebelling against his place in society, the two most interesting characters in The Moon and the Sun.
McIntyre spends much of the early portion of the novel trying to set the mood and introduce the characters to the reader. Although she does a good job of setting the mood, so many characters are thrown at the reader so quickly, and with such few distinguishing characteristics, that it is, at times, difficult to keep their identities separate. This technique also tends to push back the start of the plot until well into the novel. Although Yves captures the sea monster at the beginning of the book, the plot then languishes until the book is more than a quarter of the way through.
Of course, the sea monster is the crux of the tale. McIntyre gives only a vague description of the monster, despite the fact that we are treated to witnessing Yves's dissection of one of the creatures. Our limited knowledge lets us know that they are humanoid in general appearance, with twin tails replacing their legs, they have sharp claws and seaweed-like hair. Unlike the majority of the characters, the sea monster is not what she first appears. As the novel and the dissection advance, Marie-Josephe discovers that rather than being strictly a beast, the creature is sentient, and, incidentally, possessive of much more depth than many of the poppinjays who flit around Louis XIV's court.
I'm afraid that the historical period covered by McIntyre's novel is not one of my favorite eras of history. This, coupled with the slow start of the novel made it a difficult book to begin. Once the plot starts to move, the novel becomes better, however the lack of depth of many of the characters, while possibly historically accurate, further impairs the reader's enjoyment of the book as it is difficult to sympathize or empathize with any of McIntyre's creations.
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