In seventeenth-century France, Louis XIV rules with flamboyant ambition. From the Hall of Mirrors to the vermin-infested attics of the Chateauat Versailles, courtiers compete to please the king, sacrificing fortune, principles and sacred bonds.
Here, Marie-Josephe de la Croix looks forward to assisting her brother, Yves, in the scientific study of the rare sea monster he has captured. But when Marie-Josephe makes a discovery about the sea creature that threatens all her brother, the courtiers and the King understand, it is left to her to defy the institutions that power her world.
But in the decadent court of King Louis, where morality is skewed and corruption reigns – will anyone listen to a single voice? Somehow, she must find the courage to follow her heart and her convictions – even at the cost of changing her life forever.
Historical fiction is an odd genre, and historical fantasy in many ways an odder one; either it has to posit a wholly alternative history with its strange additions like Judith Tarr, or it has to – like Tim Powers – find the cracks in history to put its truths into, to fit the story into the less well-recorded parts of history. The Moon and the Sun does a strange combination of both.
McIntyre’s novel is set in an unusual timeperiod for a historical novel; the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. The revolutionary period following his reign, and the mediaeval period of which his reign was in many ways the post-climax comedown, are more common choices; but The Moon and the Sun takes place in a brief period between the two, in the course of a short time at Versailles. Hence, we are treated to all the expected elements of Versailles; the courtly intrigues, the fantastic grandeur and artistic showmanship on display in the Palace and its surrounds and in the everyday garb of the courtiers, and the near-worship of Louis XIV (and the very mediaeval struggles between Prince and Pope).
Interestingly, McIntyre chooses to show us this through the eyes of a woman of colour, the orphaned daughter of an impoverished French noble recalled from the colonies; the triple-outsider status to the court of our protagonist (as female, non-white and poor) means that Marie-Josèphe de la Croix gives us a view of the court much closer to our own. On the other hand that view at times veers strangely close to a modern view; Marie-Josèphe seems strangely immune to the worship of the Sun-King of the rest of the court, although she respects him, and her attitude to many of the traditions and to the Palace itself feel less authentic than modern, as does her society’s attitude to slavery (slavery was abolished in the French colony of Haiti in 1793, and in French territory more broadly in 1794, although it was restored less than a decade later). The Moon and the Sun doesn’t shy away from the racial attitudes of the French court, including the idea of paleness as more beautiful and the fetishisation of the “exotic”; which allows it to discuss the idea of what makes humanity, and how we recognise humanity in other beings, without discussing racism through nonhumans (because racism is being discussed through straight-up racism).
This is the main theme of the novel; the question of what humanity is, and how we should treat other beings we believe to be human – including how far we should go to help them. The Moon and the Sun gives us mermaids in the court of Louis XIV, captured by Marie-Josèphe’s brother to help Louis XIV find immortality; a quest whose importance is emphasised by the fear of everyone in the novel about what would happen when his son took over (when really the problem was his great-great-grandson). McIntyre slowly builds up the humanity of the mermaids (referred to only ever as sea-monsters), though hints are given from their first appearance; and simultaneously builds up the court intrigues around the mermaids and the status of Marie-Josèphe and her brother in Louis XIV’s good graces, so that there are a combination of different incentives on the different characters involved in the novel to deal differently with the evidence of the humanity of the mermaids.
The Moon and the Sun has all the complicated interpersonal relationships of a courtly intrigue, including one gay relationship that is handled well – between characters protected from the legal and religious consequences of homosexuality by the king; and yet, the two characters involved are also rather problematically portrayed insofar as other relationships and treatment of others go. That’s actually something of a theme; with one exception, the relationships are somewhat toxic – but unfortunately the one healthy relationship in The Moon and the Sun is the one with the protagonist that involves some serious changes to her partner’s attitude to relationships in a rather problematic manner.
In the end, though, The Moon and the Sun is a well-written, thoughtfully undertaken piece of historical fantasy; it’s not perfect in its representations of relationships, though the portrayal of racial issues is strong, but perhaps worth checking out despite its flaws.