A bestselling French historical fantasy for young adults is now available for English audiences. The Court of Shadows brings both drama and gore to the court of Louis the XIV of France in this alternate history featuring a young protagonist of questionable morals.
In Dixen’s reimagined Versailles, Louis the XIV’s reign did not end with his death in 1715. Instead, he enlists the most skilled physicians of his day to grant him immortality and becomes the first vampyre. Three hundred years later, his influence has spread across the globe as other monarchs undergo the process of transmutation so they can rule forever. Strict class divisions ensure that the poorest pay the price for the supernatural gifts of the aristocracy with a monthly blood tithe.
Despite the hardships placed on the common people of France, Jeanne Froidelac lives a fairly contented life with her parents and brothers in the countryside of Auvergne. That life is upended when officers arrive at her family’s house and reveal that her parents and brothers have been working as part of a secret resistance group, the Fronde. After watching her entire family murdered before her eyes, Jeanne escapes the soldiers and assumes the identity of a local baron’s daughter to avoid detection — and gain access to the court of the King, where she can take revenge for her family’s deaths.
Before she can carry out her plot to destroy those who’ve wronged her, Jeanne must learn how to be a baronette and compete in a potentially deadly competition for a place as the King’s squire. Everyone she meets is a potential enemy, and she must tread carefully if she wants to survive.
I think the best way to describe the experience of reading The Court of Shadows is to compare it watching a CW tv show. It has that compulsively binge-able quality to it, even if it comes off a little cheesy at times.
I feel that the book’s greatest strength is its exploration of classism. Dixen brings some nuance to topic in the character of Madame Thérèse, a commoner who uses her position at the Grand Écurie to put down other servants, exerting power where she can to make up for her lack of status.
The latter half of the book also questions the impact of violent rebellion and its ability to create meaningful systemic change. Jeanne is forced to consider whether she should take action to achieve her own desires, or if she’ll put the fate of her people first.
Jeanne makes for an interesting protagonist. Her goals are set out very clearly at the beginning of the novel, and she proves repeatedly that she is willing to go to any lengths — deceit, betrayal, violence — to reach those goals. Every choice she makes certainly leaves room for you to wonder if the means justify the ends.
That said, Jeanne’s character development suffers the same pitfall as many YA protagonists — she is simply, inexplicably, good at everything she tries her hand at. She succeeds at even the subjects she claims are her weaknesses without appearing to struggle much at all.
However, my biggest hangup with The Court of Shadows was its pacing. The plot moves fast, which is great for keeping you on your toes but at the expense of its potential for emotional impact. Jeanne’s family is killed before we have the chance to get to know them or her very well, causing their deaths to fall a little flat. Although Jeanne mentions them and details about their previous lives throughout the book, they don’t have as much meaning as they would if we’d had a chance to see them alive on the page for a bit longer.
Similarly, Jeanne’s relationships at court are forged quickly and largely off-page, which lessens the impact of certain reveals. I feel that the book could have benefitted from a couple of slower moments where readers could catch their breath and connect with Jeanne and the other characters a bit more.
Ultimately, I recommend The Court of Shadows if you’re looking for a fast-paced, plot-driven read with a morally gray protagonist and don’t care much for flowery language or internal conflict. For me, it was a three-star read.