This novel is, in some ways, a sort of companion novel to Gulland’s 2008 Mistress of the Sun, which focused on Louis XIV’s mistress Louise de Vallieres. This novel focuses again on the court of the Sun King, but this time on a different mistress, Athenais de Montspan. Though Athenais is the “shadow queen” of the title, the main character and narrator of the novel is her servant, Claude (or Claudette) des Oeilettes, who longs for the comfort and ease of life at court but finds herself unwillingly drawn into the intrigue, deception and downright evil that life entails.
Claude grows up a world away from the glittering court of Versailles; her parents are actors with a travelling troupe, and Claude learns to act, clown and juggle while travelling from town to town seeking a stage and enough money to keep eating — while also helping care for her disabled younger brother Gaston. Eventually Claude, her mother and brother wind up back in Paris, where her mother was a celebrated actress in her younger days. After a rocky start in the big city they find a niche in the theatre world amid stars like Racine and Moliere, but for Claude, this is only the beginning of a meteoric rise in her circumstances as a chance encounter brings her into the circle of the beautiful, charming but brutally selfish Athenais.
While the glimpses of court life are intriguing and, as always with Gulland, beautifully drawn, what really fascinated me in this book is the theatre world. From the early scenes of near-starvation in a travelling troupe of players, to the “War of the Theatres” in which Paris playhouses compete to steal each other’s best actors and playwrights, that entire world is richly and vividly depicted. My favourite reason for reading historical fiction is to be taken into a world I could never discover otherwise, and the world of seventeenth-century Parisian theatre comes alive, both onstage and backstage, through Claude’s compelling voice and the events in which she participates. She’s a more memorable character than any of the larger-than-life aristocrats with whom she ends up rubbing shoulders (and in some cases, more than shoulders).