In 1998, Vonda McIntyre’s sumptuous fantasy The Moon and the Sun won the Nebula award for Best Novel. Set in the court of King Louis the XIV of France, this fantastical alternate history asks questions about the nature of humanity, divine right, and the power of belief systems, whether those are religious or philosophical. Science versus religion is also an element, and a pointed one. Along the way, McIntyre shares tidbits about music, art, “natural science,” and fashion. It’s a dense book, stuffed with characters, ideas and detailed descriptions.
The two main characters are Marie-Josephe de la Croix, a young colonial woman who has come to court after a stay in a convent, and Lucien de Barenton, a noble, a dwarf and a friend of the king. There is a huge circle of characters, many of whom, like King Louis, are historical. Marie’s brother Yves, an explorer and a priest, and Sherzad, a mer-woman, are the most important secondary characters, but to a large extent here the “plot” (and the fate of Sherzad) is in the hands of two historical characters; the King and Pope Innocent, who is a reluctant potential ally of the King.
Marie is introduced as naïve, young, honest and brimming with intelligence. She is curious about the natural world and because she used to assist her brother in his natural science experiments, she has the inclination and training of a scientist. She is adept at mathematics and music, and has a mane of flaming red-gold hair. Yes, maybe she is just a little too good to be true. She is a lady-in-waiting to one of the royal family members and this gives her entrée to the court and access to court gossip. Much of the historical backstory, and indeed many plot points are conveyed second-hand via court gossip and conversation. When Yves returns from an expedition with two mer-people (believed to be mythical), one dead and one alive, Marie is drawn to the living female. At first she thinks it is a monster, a beast, and decides to teach it tricks; soon she realizes that the “beast” is communicating; that it is a person. No one will believe her, especially the King, who thinks that eating the flesh of a mer-person will make him immortal.
Marie’s only possible ally is the outsider noble and loyal friend of the king, Lucien. Lucien is brave, honest, and correct; he has been mocked all his life because of his stature and even court nobles call him “jester” to his face. He is also an atheist, but strangely, this is the lesser worry. Marie’s patron (matron?) Madame opines that it could be worse; he could be a Protestant.
Marie tries to speak for Sherzad (the mer-woman chooses this name; it is her pronunciation of Scheherazade) and she is silenced at every turn; for being fanciful, for being rebellious, but mostly for being a woman. Later, as Yves becomes more involved, he sees her questions and doubts as doubts of the church, and he turns against her too. Meanwhile, Marie has become the quarry of a sexual predator at court, and the king plans to marry to her off to the Chevalier de Lorraine. The Chevalier is the lover of Philippe, the king’s brother. While it’s an open secret, the marriage gives the Chevalier some cover, and creates some distance from Philippe. The King sees it as a plus for Marie, elevating her into nobility, but it isn’t what she wants.
Readers who love court intrigue will like The Moon and the Sun very much, even if, because it is realistic, it moves slowly in many ways. As someone who was the most interested in Sherzad’s story, followed by the love story of Lucien and Marie, I struggled with impatience when I first read this book in 1998, and again when I read it this time. It’s simply a matter of taste; McIntyre’s descriptions of banquet rooms, gardens, private quarters, ballrooms, music rooms, menageries, parades, parties, receptions, meals, hair, clothes, costumes and shoes are absolutely spectacular, but for me they could all have been trimmed and I wouldn’t have felt the book was lacking.
I found Marie’s naiveté inconsistent. She is young, she was stuck in a convent where no questions were answered (in fact, questions were punished) for five years; yet before that, on Martinique where she was born, she worked closely with living animals. Her ignorance of human sexuality — and I don’t just mean sexual politics — is over the top. And as I said earlier, she was a bit too perfect. On the other hand, her struggle, whether to please her brother and the King, or do the right thing as she sees it, was real and well-developed.
Sherzad is also well-developed as a person, torn from her family and community, her lover killed before her eyes. She is angry, grieving, and struggling for her own survival and this all comes through clearly in the rare sections that are in her point of view. Lucien is a complete character as well.
Less well-drawn is the character of Pope Innocent XII, who exists mainly in this book to be the straw man the scientists and free-thinkers take aim at. While King Louis has complexity, vulnerability and depth, Innocent is primarily a one-note martinet, the set-up for clever zingers from the characters we like.
“Our Savior ministered to lepers. Can I do less?” Innocent regarded Lucien. “Although Our Savior was not required to traffic with atheists.”
Marie Josephe blushed with anger at the insult.
“If He had,” Lucien said, “no doubt He would have been gracious about it.”
The Church represents all that is bad, and science, of course, all that is good, which is a gross oversimplification but works here, for the most part, when set against purely political intrigue.
As The Moon and the Sun draws to a close it becomes more and more obvious that there can’t really be a happy ending, but McIntyre provides an ending that is thematically right for the work, and gives three characters what they want the most, even if they sacrifice other things to reach it. I was convinced by that ending, and I loved the final few pages, where the story returns to Sherzad and her people in a passage that is lovely, lyrical and joyous.
The book holds up, twenty years later. Sadly, the kind of sexual harassment Marie endures at court is all too plausible. I would have hoped that, reading this book again, that element would have seemed quaint, a thing of the past. Now it looks like behavior you’d see at any law firm. This is a critique of society, not The Moon and the Sun. I recommend The Moon and the Sun to people who like court intrigue, alternate history and historical romance. Like a luxurious royal banquet, it will satisfy.