Friday, July 02, 2010

Book Review: The Moon and the Sun

Vonda N. McIntyre
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


The Moon and the Sun takes place at the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. The main story revolves around a minor lady of the court, Marie-Josèphe, whose beloved brother Yves is one of the king’s scientific explorers. On one of Yves’ ocean voyages he manages to capture two humanoid sea monsters. One of them dies in the process but he brings them both back to Versailles, installing the live one in a pool and conducting a dissection of the dead one under observation by the king.

The living sea monster becomes the attraction of the summer at court, with nobles coming to gawk at her in her pool. Marie-Josèphe is the only person willing to pay enough attention to the sea monster (and to spend time with her outside of gawking hours) to realize that she is an intelligent creature and thinks like a human and can communicate (through song).

Unfortunately, of course, no one believes Marie-Josèphe about this. And, in fact, the king wants to cook and eat the sea monster at a banquet. So Marie-Josèphe and her brother have to engineer an escape.

This is actually a novel of alternate history, but you don’t know that until the very end. The idea is that this all really did happen; there really were intelligent sea monsters living in the ocean in the 1600s, and two were brought back to Versailles. But in our version of history, the sea monster was eaten by the king and the world was never any the wiser and all the sea monsters went extinct, most killed by sailors who didn’t know what they were killing.

In The Moon and the Sun’s version of history, Marie-Josèphe and her brother saved the sea monster, humans found out that they were not the only intelligent species on earth, human-sea monster diplomatic relations were established and it changed history right down to the modern day.

The story itself was so-so. But it served as a great vehicle for embedding you in life at Versailles. I thought the best parts of the book by far were the everyday details and nuances of court behavior – including how the women did their hair and handled their periods – which really made the era come alive.

I liked how every little part of the king’s life got blown up into something unbelievably ceremonial and elaborate. The very highest-ranking nobles at court, for example, had the dubious honor of being required to get up super-early, dressed to the nines, to attend the "awakening" of the king each morning. (The king actually woke up several hours earlier and had his hair and makeup and clothes done, so what the courtiers saw was really his second awakening, but you can’t have the king looking disheveled.)

There are also some great king-related moments around the otherwise sad scenes of the dead sea monster's dissection, which the king insists on attending in person. One day he is unable to come, so the men-at-arms bring in a portrait of the king instead and put it on the king's chair, and everyone has to act like the portrait is the actual king.

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