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The Oracle Glass, 1994
The resplendent court of Louis XIV in late 17th-century France makes a tempting stamping ground for historical novelists; scandals and colourful personages abound, and among all the juicy story possibilities Riley homes in on the most sensational: the lurid affaire des poisons that risked slinging mud on the throne itself, so highly placed were the scheming, ambitious courtiers who resorted to little glass flasks full of nasty compounds to rid themselves of enemies and rivals for the King's favour. The territory has been visited before, notably by Anne and Serge Golon in their lively Angélique series with its provocative and well-imagined portrayals of numerous characters who also play a role in Riley's book, among others the haughty Madame de Montespan, the Sun King's primary mistress, and the tenacious policeman Desgrez. A further resemblance is Riley's invention of a fictional political libellist, Florent d'Urbec, published by a clandestine press in Paris; Florent seems in some respects a composite of the Golons' anarchic poet-libellist (executed, unlike Florent) and their virile Parisian gangster who was condemned, exactly like Florent, to the galleys in Marseilles under the command of Madame de Montespan's brother.
What distinguishes Riley's highly readable reworking of events is her original idea of viewing the court from a distance, from its underside so to speak, as if prying up a rock to shed light on the vermin scuttling in the darkness beneath. Her likeable young heroine, Geneviève, moves in the shadowy underworld of the witches, sorcerers, alchemists, fortune-tellers, corrupt priests, abortionists, and sundry charlatans who purvey love potions, charms, Black Masses, and "inheritance-powders" to the avid, credulous aristocrats engaged in their scramble for revenue, titles, and a place in the sun. It was a time of rampant superstition, cruel judicial tortures, spectacular public executions in the Place de Grève, and lofty isolation of the monarchy from the masses. Riley's protagonists are commoners making a shady living on the edge of the law, and often well beyond the edge.
As a further unusual twist, Geneviève is not a fake like her "colleagues," but possesses a genuine talent; she is an actual clairvoyant who can interpret the images she sees in a beaker of water. Discovered in childhood by the notorious witch Catherine Montvoisin, she is taken up and tutored in her trade when forced to flee her home under the menace of being murdered, like other hapless members of her family, because suspected of having inherited a coveted secret fortune from her eccentric father. Geneviève quickly masters the tricks making her true ability look more impressive to clients and is launched on her career in the outrageous guise of Madame de Morville, supposedly 150 years old thanks to a lost magic formula of eternal youth. Needless to say, she is an immediate success!
Although under heavy financial obligation to the rapacious Montvoisin, Geneviève manages to steer clear of direct involvement in the witch's more unsavoury illicit activities. As her circle of clients slowly expands to include the greatest names in the realm, she alternates her public appearances as the heavily-powdered, old-fashioned, intimidating seeress with a wistful love affair carried on in her own person. Geneviève is hopelessly infatuated with a feckless, handsome playwright named André Lamotte, a former admirer of her beautiful elder sister and a friend of the acerbic Florent, destined to become the true love of her life after a chain of misadventures.
The Oracle Glass is a well-written seriocomedy, a drama veined with verve and tongue-in-cheek humour, but also with ugly deaths and macabre scenes like Montvoisin's attempted evocation of a demon or the efficient dismemberment of a corpse to fashion a decorator-accessory from the skeleton and magic paraphernalia from its other parts. Most of the worst evil-doers eventually get their come-uppance, while the ordinary sinners muddle through. When the police finally begin to close in on the noble poisoners and prepare to arrest their suppliers, Florent manages to make away with Montvoisin's papers compromising Geneviève as linked to the circle of criminal occultists. Triumphantly, the two escape, leaving their checkered pasts behind and enabling the reader to close the book with a smile of satisfaction.
© Wordreign, August 1999
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