The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley
Fawcett Columbine, 1st printing, 1995
Genre: historical fiction, fantasy, romance
Synopsis & Review: Born ugly and crippled, Genevieve Pasquier is abandoned to a crèche by her mother, only to be rescued five years later by her father, who had been told that she’d died at birth. Precocious and thoughtful, Genevieve is reviled by her mother and doted upon by her philosophy-reading father, who tutors her in the Stoics and logic. Both Genevieve and her older sister Marie-Angelique grow up sheltered in the House of the Marmousets, gazing out upon Paris while they read Roman philosophy and romance novels, respectively. When her beloved father dies suddenly, Genevieve’s mother locks her up and interrogates her about a mysterious fortune overseas, but knowing nothing of it, Genevieve cannot provide any answers, and is beaten and abused until she wishes to die. Fleeing her home, Genevieve is preparing to throw herself into the Seine when her soon-to-be benefactress, the mysterious La Voisin, stops her. La Voisin is willing to take Genevieve under her wing, granting her safety and revenge, for Genevieve possesses a rare and marvelous talent, the ability to read the future in water.
Under La Voisin’s tutelage, Genevieve is transformed into the mysterious Marquise de Morville, a beautiful hundred and fifty year old widow, and in Louis XIV’s France, fortune-telling, alchemy, and diabolism are all the rage, consulted by Frances finest men and women. La Voisin is Queen of Paris’ occult underworld, sponsoring occultists, abortionists, and poisoners amid the burgeoning scandal of the Affair of the Poisons, and Genevieve becomes deeply enmeshed in her world. While the nobility cavorts and occultists to a roaring trade in aphrodisiacs and inheritance powders, Police Chief de la Reynie and his Inspector Desgrez hound the Marquise de Brinvilliers through Europe before turning their eyes on homeward. Rising in power from La Voisin’s web, Genevieve struggles to find her own identity and happiness in the realms of the Sun King and the Shadow Queen. I first stumbled upon The Oracle Glass at the Hawaii Kai Public Library, just after publication. I read it and was enchanted, and though it was several years before I found any, I read more by the author as soon as I could get my hands on them. (Her most recent, The Water Devil, is finally translated into English, by the way.) Her fans are a small group, but devoted, and I count myself among them; if I need something light and entertaining, I can always pick up one of my Rileys.
Riley world-builds beautifully, never seeming didactic as she crafts her vision of a diabolical seventeenth-century Paris; tidbits on etiquette and fashion are seamlessly integrated into the story and dialog. Though she does not linger long on description, Riley creates a realistic atmosphere with the feel of authenticity down to the smallest details—provided that one can suspend disbelief long enough to accept the occasional Black Mass. Riley’s world is carried by her characters and their thoughts and actions, which are rarely—if ever—anachronistic. They are creatures of their time and place; even the logical and clever Genevieve remains a snob, refusing to consort with a horse-dealer’s widow.
The treatment of women is a major theme in the novel, as Riley explores the possibility of a corporate structure in La Voisin’s underworld. Though there are powerful women, they are often dependent on the whims of a man, hence La Montespan’s reliance upon aphrodisiacs and love-spells to enchant the King. More independent women such as La Dodee and La Trianon must present themselves as quiet and respectable widows, or they are at risk of imprisonment for whoredom, or otherwise threatening the social structure. Though men may parade their mistresses publicly, women can be locked away in a convent for similar behavior. Some of those mistresses are destroyed by the men in their lives, for they are seen as disposable commodities. Only with rank and fortune can a woman achieve safety and security, and no woman can achieve those outside of marriage.
Like Riley’s other protagonists, Genevieve is far from perfect. Born ugly, with a crookback and a limp, she alternately yearns to be beautiful, and scorns the beautiful. Her desperate need to be loved for herself leads her to one foolish relationship, and threatens another, for she is all-too human. Though educated and clever, she is also revealed to be somewhat elitist and pretentious, and far too fond of her creature comforts, as well as prone to a little opium addiction. But for all her quirks, Genevieve is also a determined, though hardly ruthless, young woman, and one with whom other young women can easily identify. Though she is sometimes naïve, especially at the start, by novel’s end Genevieve has developed and changed. The conceit of fortune-telling versus free will play a role in her development, though never in a manner that totally answers questions before the conclusion.
The Oracle Glass’ other characters, from La Voisin to the courtiers, are also well-drawn, each with their own peculiarities and quirks. Genevieve’s patrons are often at their worst, with their most venal or bases desires exposed, but Riley does not strip them of their dignity, and is compassionate in her treatment of even the most callous criminals, such as the murderess the Marquise de Brinvilliers or the sometimes ghastly La Voisin. One of Riley’s strong suits is the incorporation of humor into her novels, and The Oracle Glass is as droll as any of her others. Genevieve herself is a witty little personage, analytical almost to a fault, and her observations of the often uncanny, occasionally ridiculous behavior around her are amusing and engaging. Also entertaining and unexpected is Riley’s deft juxtaposition of skeptics and believers.
An absorbing and diverting piece of historical fiction, with more than a touch of the fantastic and a touching romance. Fun and well-paced, though with a slight drag in the middle.
Cover: Genevieve as the Marquise de Morville, seated at a divining glass. Along with the name and jacket, certainly induced me to read it.
“It’s not a game, silly; it’s your fortune. See the sun there? That’s good luck. And that one there means money soon. Now, who else shall we do?”
“What about the cat?” She laughed and dealt the cards again. “Oh, puss, a death’s head for you, you old thing. Best not go outside, or you’ll be made into stew by the assistant gardener’s family!” So we spent the remainder of the afternoon quite pleasantly, casting fortunes for various family members and grandees at court. “Only you mustn’t do it for the King,” she cautioned. “That’s treason, and they will draw and quarter you in the Place de Greve for it.” Clearly, becoming wealthy in the fortune-telling business had more pitfalls than her stepmother had made out.
21 June – 24 June