1768. Charlotte arrives in Naples to marry a man she has never met. Two years later, her sister Antoine is sent to France to marry another stranger. In the mirrored corridors of Versailles, they rename her Marie Antoinette.
But the sisters are not powerless. When they were only children, Charlotte and Antoine discovered a book of spells – spells that seem to work, with dark and unpredictable consequences.
In a world of vicious court politics, of discovery and dizzying change, Charlotte and Antoine use their secret skills to redefine their lives, becoming the most influential women of the age.
But every spell requires a sacrifice. As love between the sisters turns to rivalry, they will send Europe spiralling into revolution.
Publication details: 17 February 2022, by HarperVoyager. Review copy provided by the publisher.
Firstly, The Embroidered Book is a very comprehensively researched account of the lives of Marie Antoinette and her older sister Maria Carolina (Charlotte). Marie Antoinette’s life is well-chronicled, but I knew basically nothing about Charlotte coming into this book, and there were lots of interesting tidbits that had me pulling up Wikipedia. (Though I am still struggling a little with the concept of her giving birth 18 times, especially given what an awful person her husband was). There’s also some cameos from other historical figures, most notably Lafayette.
Overall, I thought Heartfield did a good job with making her subjects seem like the flawed humans they were; she doesn’t shy away from the failures of all of Europe’s monarchs during this period, while also acknowledging that the challenges that female rulers faced in terms of sexism and their lack of preparedness to rule. I both felt bad for them, and completely understood why their subjects hated them. The relationship between the sisters isn’t quite as passionate (for good or bad) as the blurb suggests. Heartfield tries her best, but there’s only so much that can be done when the characters in question only interact by correspondence and enchanted portraits for three decades, and have greater interactions with characters that are ultimately secondary at best. But for the most part, it’s an interesting character study.
Where this book fell flat for me is… well, I’m still not sure why this was a historical fantasy, because the magic system and the associated conflicts don’t really add anything to the story except a cool concept, and a few hundred extra words. The magic system is genuinely one of the more interesting ones I’ve come across, as it requires the magician to make a sacrifice, typically in the form of an emotional connection or a memory. The more powerful the magic, the greater the sacrifice. There’s some interesting musings about what this might mean, but for the majority of the book I’m not actually sure it means much… except that occasionally the characters might forget a previous conversation, or feel no real love for a pet.
The Embroidered Book also tries to introduce a broader conflict – between those who want to keep magic secret tightly controlled, and only taught to a select few, and those who want to throw open the floodgates and make magic more freely spoken about. There’s lots of skulking about, and threats to both queens’ lives due to their knowledge of magic, but it ultimately goes nowhere. The network of magicians and the consequences of their actions for the wider world are too broadly sketched to be really meaningful, and the book introduces people who could be dangerous, but then forgets about them. And meanwhile, the real problems that led to the French Revolution truck along, and we end up exactly where real history took us, without magic really changing a thing.
All of which led to a book that for me was interesting, with real potential, but ultimately not as satisfying as I might have liked.