The Moon and the Sun
by Vonda N. McIntyre
(Pocket, $23.00, PG) ISBN 0-671-56765-9
*****
The Moon and the Sun is, quite simply, a breathtaking novel. Vonda N. McIntyre, best known for her science-fiction/fantasy tales, here weaves a story of love, betrayal, and redemption that will enthrall readers across the genres. This belongs on a shelf labeled "The Best of the Best".

Louis XIV reigns in seventeenth-century France, and in the fiftieth year of his monarchy, the power of the Sun King is at its zenith. Determined to discover the secret of immortality, Louis has sent his natural philosopher, Father Yves de la Croix, to seek out the rare sea monsters of the Atlantic. Perhaps they will hold the key to eternal life.

Yves returns to France with two treasures: the corpse of a male sea monster, wrapped in ice and sawdust, and a live female which is dumped into the Apollo fountain at the palace of Versailles. The entire court is intrigued, none more so than Marie-Joseph de la Croix, Yves' sister. She is at court, attending to a noble family, and her adored brother Yves is finally home. Marie-Joseph's years in a convent have nearly crushed her passion for life and her interest in natural studies. In the imprisoned sea woman, Marie recognizes another spirit struggling to be free.

The sea woman senses an ally and friend in Marie-Joseph. Soon she begins to sing, music that conveys a story to Marie-Joseph. It's the story of the sea people, their struggles against the land humans and their torture at the hands of the sailors and priests who regard them as monsters. If the sea woman, now called Sherzad, is to be saved from making an appearance on King Louis' banquet table as a dish of immortality, then it will be up to Marie-Joseph to save her.

Against the cesspit of court intrigue, one person stands out to aide Marie-Joseph as she begins to understand the sea woman. Lucien, Count de Chretien, is one of the king's most trusted advisors. He is also a very short man, nearly a dwarf. But his intelligence and compassion render him a figure of formidable proportions. Lucien walks a fine line between serving his adored king and coming to realize that Marie-Joseph speaks the truth when she claims that the sea monsters aren't monsters at all, but humans.

The court at Versailles is a character in itself. Courtiers pair off as lovers, break apart, and pair again. Everyone vies for the favor of the king. Louis, the Sun King, is presented here as a man so self-involved that he requires an elaborate ceremony with dozens of courtiers each morning just to awaken him and assist him to the toilet. That neither he nor any of his courtiers regard this as the least bit exceptional makes for an intriguing read. Pope Innocence XII, cousin to the King, figures in the story as Yves wars between his duty to the Church and his beliefs as a scholar.

It would have been easy to present the King as a man whose material goods are outstripped only by his ego. Instead, McIntyre chooses to paint him in complex colors. His offhand acceptance of his wealth and privilege, for example, are contrasted with his adoration of Madame de Maintenon, the dour widow who is his second wife and who is pious to the point of fanaticism, refusing to adorn herself or wear any jewels the King gives her. As the author points out, the purpose of Versailles was not only to satisfy the King's need for lavish self-adornment, but to illustrate the power of the throne. McIntyre allows us to see flashes of diplomatic brilliance and vulnerability in the man who ruled France for more than fifty years.

The honesty and human decency of Lucien and Marie-Joseph shine against the simpering, posturing background of the court. Marie-Joseph's struggle to break free of the bonds imposed on her by the convent nuns makes for fine growth in character. Lucien, desperate for love but unwilling to marry or father any dwarf children, must first allow Marie-Joseph to see past his defenses. When Marie-Joseph finally declares her love for Lucien, his denial is almost painful. His barriers will remain intact -- for now.

Lucien's final choice is inevitable: his king or the woman he loves more than life itself. The story builds to a whirlwind conclusion as Sherzad reveals her knowledge of the only thing that matters in the wealth-hungry world of the Sun King. Sherzad has a ransom to offer, if the king will only accept.

Romance readers need to understand that the romance thread in this book is secondary, though satisfying, and the story line takes concentration because of the many secondary court characters. (McIntyre kindly provides a list at the front of the book.) But if you are looking for a compelling read, one that will immerse you in another world and give you a hero and heroine to cheer for, The Moon and the Sun provides all that - and more. This is one of the very best.

--Cathy Sova


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