The Moon and the Sun

by Vonda N. McIntyre

Cover image

Publisher: Pocket
Copyright: 1997
Printing: September 1998
ISBN: 0-671-56766-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 464

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The date is 1693. The place is the court of Louis XIV, in Versailles. A long-separated brother and sister are about to be reunited. The brother, Yves, a Jesuit priest, is returning from a successful sea voyage to capture a legendary sea monster. The sister, Marie-Josèphe, is a handmaid to the neice of the king. She has gratefully escaped a past in a convent into which she was deposited by her brother when they left Martinique. Her worldly education is sadly lacking, but she's a quick thinker with a good grasp of decorum and she has done well in court despite a low, colonial birth. But the arrival of the sea monster, her brother, and then Pope Innocent XII show her the limits of her life and the need to challenge them.

The Moon and the Sun is an alternate history with a single point of fantasy: the introduction of a sea monster who's essentially a more realistic mermaid. Yves is a naturalist in a 17th century model, one who captures, kills, and dissects strange creatures to understand anatomy. Marie wants to return to helping him, as she did on Martinique as a child, sketching his dissections and learning and studying with him after being forbidden such activities in the convent. They dissect a second male sea monster together, but as Marie cares for and tries to train the captured live female, she begins to realize that the creature is far more than a dumb beast.

This is a strongly feminist book, with parallels between Marie and the sea monster at the heart of its obvious symbolism. At the start of the book, Marie is optimistic and fairly happy in her position and mostly comfortable in court, but she's trapped in an invisible cage of societal and religious expectation about the place and role of women. As she learns and cares for the sea creature kept in a literal cage in a fountain at Versailles, and as she starts pursuing natural history, drawing, and music composition again, she runs into the bars of a cage as unyielding as those of her captive. The parallels become more complete as the story continues. Marie is seen as inferior as a woman the way that the sea creature is inferior as a beast, and just as accurately. Where the sea creature is in danger of being butchered and eaten, Marie is in danger of being bled by doctors who consider any sign of independent thought to be medically treatable hysterics. Both are subject to the whims of the King and the Pope. And both endure more than fight until pressed beyond their limits; both want simply to be themselves.

I had a few difficulties with Marie as a realistic character due to the variety of skills she demonstrates (hence giving her a variety of ways to run into the cage of a woman's role). She knows enough of math to play with calculus in her free time and dare a letter to Isaac Newton, can compose a sonata worthy of a king (albeit with some assistance), plays the harpsichord well enough to be heard in court, and can sketch quickly and accurately through a dissection and to tell a story. For her age, this seems a bit much. But thematically, the result is beautiful and subtle. Marie starts the book as an ingenue, her knowledge of self and sexuality crippled by the convent and its policy of ignorance, but she has an open-hearted, steadfast, and enthusiastic attitude that won me over. McIntyre does a great job of letting her grow, letting the reader see her flower, and only then having her brother and the Church pull her up short. Her anguish is so much more effective after that glimpse of her potential.

This book will inspire a thorough dislike of Innocent XII and the Catholic Church, although McIntyre makes it clear that their sexism is only the worst extreme of a general attitude. It's a nasty extreme, though, and Pope Innocent XII is essentially without redeeming qualities. The convent Marie was in is mentioned only in conversation, but it presents a much harsher and I think more realistic view of what a medieval convent was like for those sent there against their will than one usually sees. And by the end of the book I wanted to strangle Yves; he may truly love Marie, but he's so locked into the narrow mindset of his church and culture that his treatment of her is utterly blind and horrifying in its willingness to discard everything he learned of her when they were children together. McIntyre shows more and more clearly as the story progresses the evil that comes from cultural assumptions and the helplessness of having one's every word ignored because of preconceived notions of inferiority.

Marie is one of two heroes of the book. The other is Lucien, Louis's closest confidant and the viewpoint through which we view the machinations of the court. There is a love story, which is a touch too obvious and proceeds along expected lines, but Lucien's perspective is more valuable for showing the wonderful ambiguity of Louis XIV himself. Louis is the driving factor this book. He commissioned the capture of the sea creature, it's his banquet in which she is destined to be prepared, Marie serves in his court, and Innocent XII is on hand to negotiate an alliance. He is enigmatic, restrained, unpredictable, and remarkably intelligent, a wildcard that the characters gamble on, appeal to, and attempt to placate. All the time, he watches everything and keeps his own counsel, trying to take practical courses of action that are best for his country and the long view. Lucien is enjoyable in his own right (an open atheist, a dwarf, and a sarcastic wit), but Lucien and Louis XIV together are a remarkable pair.

Some parts of this book are obvious and superficially stock. There's a coming of age story, a love story whose outcome is obvious from early on, and a feminist portrayal of the role of women that touches familiar points. The story thrives in the details, though. McIntyre explores the framework with some excellent characters, Louis XIV in particular, and gives it a thematic richness and resonance that made me care deeply about the story. She doesn't sprinkle the text with half-translated French sayings, she does an excellent job of telling the reader just enough about the circumstances of the time for the politics to make sense, and she packs the story of the sea creature with moments of recognition, metaphor, and parallel that are apparent enough to enjoy but are not belabored. She also does more than most authors for giving the reader an accurate feel for the hygiene and inconvenience of the 17th century. Little touches like the sea creature's water slowly getting dirtier over the course of the story and a realistic handling of Marie's period added a great deal to the book. And at the very end, the handling of alternate history gets a twist I did not see coming but which fit perfectly with everything that happened while shifting the historical foundation of the whole book.

I know little of French history and am normally leery of alternate history set at court, but McIntyre manages to weave in obsession with clothing, aristocratic bickering, and pointless love affairs with feminism, discovery, and intrigue, and excellent characterization in a way that didn't annoy me and didn't bore me. That's impressive. There are a few false notes (I never found Odelette believable and the viewpoint characters are a bit too good to be true) and some of the plot direction is predictable, but there's enough depth to make up for the short-comings. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-02-01

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