I learned something terrible and sad today: One of my favorite historical fiction authors, the too-little known Judith Merkle Riley, died nearly two weeks ago. I’ve never thought she got the attention she deserved (not in the US, at least; I know her last novel was in print overseas when it was impossible to find here), even in these halcyon days when we’re glutted with historical fiction, both good and wretched. Riley always stood out for her dry, often absurd humor and the flights of fancy her novels often took: “If all the chronicles of earthly life were recorded with such drama, flair and wit, the world would be filled with history majors,” Betty Lukas wrote in her 1989 Times review of “A Vision of Light,” Riley’s first novel. That about says it.
I found The Oracle Glass in the library in tenth grade, and went looking for it again after I moved to the Mainland a year later. It took me years to painstakingly build my collection of her novels, but I thoroughly enjoyed every one of them (perhaps the later Margaret of Ashburys a bit less, but still). I kind of wish I’d written a fan letter to her, just so she’d know how very much I liked her books. And I ended up a History major, too.
As an homage, I think I’ll read a few of her books this week. Resquiat in pace, Judith.
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. click here for more about The Oracle Glass