‘The Oracle Glass’ by Judith Merkle Riley

July 21, 2015 at 12:30 am 2 comments

51+dnLNO-2L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_As much as I try to be virtuous in my reading choices, I sometimes succumb to my baser urges. And by that, I mean that sometimes, I read historical romance. Not the books with the shirtless dudes on the front and a woman in a period ball gown…but books that are largely unchallenging, with super-compelling story lines, sumptuous jewelry and a woman who just doesn’t fit societal norms. Think Philippa Gregory or Diana Gabaldon.

The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley is, without a doubt, one of the best of this genre. Set in the age of the Sun King, it tells the story of young Genevieve Pasquier, a 16-year-old girl whose mother has driven the family into debt (again, not unlike Emma Bovary or Undine Spragg). Genevieve has two strikes against her: one, an untreated twisted foot has left her sway-backed and limping; two, her father has tutored her in Latin, philosophy and mathematics, and her mother has largely ignored her, so she has a great education and no social graces. As a result of this and her appearance, few in life will take her seriously.

Early on and as a result of tragedy, Genevieve is swept up by La Voisin, a witch and incredible businesswoman who promises Genevieve that she can make her beautiful, rich, successful and — most importantly — capable of bringing revenge down on a family member who has betrayed her. As Genevieve can see the future in water and other reflective surfaces, all La Voisin needs to provide are the connections and the window dressing. A lift in her shoe and a sturdy corset to support her back ensure she’s mostly unrecognizable; a body is found in the river and identified as Genevieve, leaving her unencumbered. Suddenly, she is reborn as the Marquise de Morville, a 180-year-old woman preserved in eternal youth who has the power to see the future.

That is literally just the beginning. An amazing plot unwinds that is based on The Affair of the Poisons in France, during which a huge underground cabal of poisoners and Satanists was exposed in 17th-century Paris. This is a time when people truly believed in magic: that a Black Mass could turn the king’s favor, that a love potion could bring them their heart’s desire. Riley sharply contrasts Genevieve’s own beliefs with those of the society she moves in, while allowing Genevieve to struggle with what she believes about her own gifts. It’s a fascinating study, and it begs the question — if you truly believed that Satan could bring you everything, would you worship him?

One of the more refreshing aspects of this novel is how ineffectual the men, in general, are (including Satan, come to that). La Voisin’s husband is a shambles, Genevieve’s father is a financial and familial failure. One of Genevieve’s friends is a “kept man,” and it’s clear that, even though the court may revolve around Louis XIV, the women wield the real power in this world. Sure, Genevieve has a male bodyguard…but more as an expression of her power than anything else.

Genevieve’s love interest is possibly the most effective of the lot, and even he isn’t around terribly much. He’s proven himself, but he’s never called on to carry out her battles, even the physical ones. He does help at a crucial point near the end, but he’s prompted to it by Genevieve’s maid. And by this point, the reader knows that Genevieve is capable of being her own rescuer — having a man around is a luxury, not a necessity. It’s less about having “a man” and more about having a clever partner in crime.

This book is a true favorite. I’ve probably read it half a dozen times, and it holds up even better under repeated readings. Definitely a book worth buying.



Entry filed under: Historical Fiction. Tags: , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Eva  |  July 21, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    I’ll have to give it a go!

    Have you read Susanna Kearsley yet? If not, I’d bet you’ll love her. Her writing’s much better than Phillipa Gregory or Diana Gabaldon, but she writes the same ‘types’ of books, just on a more elevated level. And no rape! Yay! I’d suggest starting with The Shadowy Horses, The Rose Garden, Mariana, or The Winter Sea. And once you’ve read The Shadowy Horses and The Winter Sea, you can read The Firebird, which is fabulous and features some characters first seen in the two earlier books. I’ll take off my bossy pants now. ;)

    • 2. Kate  |  July 22, 2015 at 11:22 am

      I haven’t read Kearsley yet! Thank you so much for the recommendation — in a bit of a rut right now.


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