Excerpted from The Dark Queen by Susan Carroll. Copyright © 2005 by Susan Carroll. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Interview with Susan Carroll, author of The Dark Queen:
Question:Which came first: the idea of setting a novel in sixteenth century France, or the idea of using Catherine de Medici as a main character? Was this different from the way your books usually begin?
Susan Carroll:I have been intrigued by Catherine de Medici and the legends surrounding her for a long time. But my books always begin with my fictional characters. I developed the idea of my three sisters and then decided on a setting that would provide a backdrop to developing their story. Sixteenth century France seemed perfect, with its epidemic of witch-hunts, and, of course, Catherine provided a marvelous villain.
Q:The Dark Queen combines elements of a historical novel, a feminist romance, and a supernatural fantasy. Did you try to strike a particular balance, or just follow where the story led?
SC:I am not an analytical writer. Once I flesh out my characters and decide on the elements of my plot, the story unfolds in my head almost as though it was a movie reel.
Q:Is there a historical basis for the Daughters of the Earth? In many respects, I was reminded of new-age Wiccan practices. But you’re talking about something much, much older.
SC:I have heard a little about the new-age Wiccans, but never really researched them. The Daughters of the Earth are a product of my own invention. But the idea was inspired by what I have read of wise women in Celtic cultures and some American Indian tribes.
Q:How historically accurate is your depiction of the Inquisition? Is Le Vis based on a particular inquisitor?
SC:Le Vis and his order of witch hunters are once again my own invention. As far as I know there was no organized band of traveling witch hunters. The inquisition in France was handled as elsewhere through the church and local governments.
Q:In general, how closely do you feel obligated to follow the historical record in your novels? How much wiggle room do you give yourself?
SC:I freely admit that I took great license in writing The Dark Queen, more so than my other historical romance novels. This is largely because I viewed the book as a fantasy novel as much as an historical. I do feel that writers should strive for as much accuracy as possible, but in the end remember that we are writing fiction. As a reader, I can forgive a writer historical license if the tale is vivid and compelling. But if the story is weak, no matter how great the research, I will set the book aside.
Q:Can the Daughters of the Earth coexist with Christianity–not only in your books, but outside them, in today’s world? Do you think the inquisitorial mindset is returning, as religious fundamentalists seek to exercise greater authority in politics and society?
SC:I did not intend The Dark Queen to be an expression of my own religious beliefs, but I tend to be open-minded. I feel all the religions should be able to co-exist if the various factions would be willing to respect and learn from each other’s faiths. The Daughters of the Earth as I created them believed in harmony with nature, healing and peace. These values certainly are not anti-Christian as I see it.
To answer the second part of your question, I regret to say that I don’t feel that the inquisitional mindset has ever entirely died. I don’t regard witch-hunting as activity based merely on the punishment of heretics. Sadly, I think there is an element in our society that is always ready to persecute anyone who dares to step out of line and to think differently.
Q:Did you come to feel sympathy for Catherine de Medici as you researched her for the novel? She’s a fascinating character.
SC:I definitely felt sympathy for Catherine. Despite her high birth, she never had an easy life. She was orphaned at a young age, nearly killed during the revolts in Florence during her childhood. She was only thirteen when she was married and sent off to a country where she was despised and never considered good enough for their prince. She fell in love with Henry, only to take second place to his mistress until the day he died. She had many children (many of which I did not depict in the novels for lack of space), and yet she outlived nearly all of them. She had to learn to hold her own in a court seething with intrigue and animosity. Despite some of the ruthless activities she was drawn into, the real Catherine essentially was a peacemaker and did her best to bring order to France.
Q:I was intrigued by Catherine’s “Flying Squadron” of beautiful spies and assassins. Did they really exist? How were these women recruited, and how many were there?
SC:Catherine’s Flying Squadron did exist. They were chosen by her for their beauty and intelligence, but were not any sinister, secret organization. They would have seemed to be nothing more than her ladies in waiting. I have no idea of their exact number and I doubt she used them as assassins. They acted more as her spies and helped her keep some of the powerful men at court under control by seducing them.
Q:Justice Deauville, the Comte de Renard, is a man of contradictions: a peasant and an aristocrat, a knight and a wizard, a man who hates his father yet finds himself in danger of becoming very like him. In fact, at the outset of the novel, it’s hard to tell whether he’s a hero or a villain!
SC:Yes, that’s all accurate. I wanted the reader to be as confused and intrigued by him as Ariane is.
Q:As the novel opens, Ariane Cheney is the Lady of Faire Isle, yet she doesn’t feel deserving of that title. Why?
SC:Ariane feels inadequate because she so admired her mother, the former Lady of Faire Isle and lost her too soon. She felt she had so much more to learn from Evangeline before she would be ready to fill her shoes. I never base characters on real people, but this mirrors some of my own experience. My own mother died when I was twenty-two and I still miss her gentle guidance.
Q:Tell us a little about the other two Cheney sisters, Gabrielle and Miri.
SC:Gabrielle is middle Cheney sister, exquisitely beautiful and at one time a gifted artist. But a devastating incident causes her to lose her magic with paint and canvas. She strives to seem worldly wise and cynical, but beneath all her bravado lies a painful secret and a wounded soul.
Miri is the youngest, an ethereal fairy child, far more comfortable with animals than she is with people. She possesses an uncanny gift for communicating with four-legged creatures, but she is also cursed with prophetic dreams. Shy, gentle and trusting, she sees good in everyone until her trust is betrayed.
Q:Was the character of Melusine based on an actual person?
SC:No, Melusine is purely a fictional creation. There were occasionally peasant revolts in France. I just invented a witch to be the leader of one.
Q:Your descriptions of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre are harrowing. Did you find contemporary accounts in your research?
SC:I came across many descriptions of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Using these accounts, I created fictional characters, Nicolas Remy and his friends, the Devereaux family, to illustrate the horrors and sadness of one of the darkest events in French history.
Q:There are a number of fairy tale motifs in the novel: the magic rings, the three wishes, and so on. Are fairy tales a source of inspiration to you?
SC:I have always adored fairy tales. I devoured the works of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm as a child.
Q:There are two more novels to come in the trilogy, the next featuring Gabrielle, and then one with Miri, the youngest Cheney sister. Can you give us a preview of these books? Will we be seeing more of Simon, Le Vis’s young apprentice? And what of the missing Chevalier Cheney?
SC:The next book in the series will be The Courtesan. This continues Gabrielle’s story as she journeys to Paris to pursue her destiny. Determined never to feel vulnerable or helpless again, she pursues one of the few paths to power that was open to a woman, by becoming a courtesan. Her ambitions will once more put her into conflict with Catherine de Medici. Gabrielle will also be obliged to choose between ambition and love.
Simon Aristide will definitely play an important role in the next two books, and readers will finally learn the fate of the missing Chevalier Cheney in book three. The next two books will also introduce many new characters, some heroes, some villains.
Q:What other projects are you working on?
SC:I am currently finishing the third book (as yet untitled), which will be Miri’s story. I also have an idea for a possible fourth book in this series dealing with a character that will be introduced in The Courtesan, but I cannot say more without giving too much away.
Also, I have had so many requests from fans regarding more St. Leger tales that I have begun a notebook outlining the plots for three more books about the cursed family from Cornwall. As I currently envision the stories, these books will deal with three brothers and carry the St. Legers into the Victorian era.
1. The Dark Queen is set in France, in 1572, where the rule of the Valois line, and the behind-the-throne power of Catherine de Medici, is threatened by religious ferment between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots. Why do you think the author chose to set her book in this place and time?
2. The novel begins with a recounting of the legend of the Daughters of the Earth, a sect of women devoted to a mother goddess whose history precedes the Catholic Church. Do you believe there is any truth to this legend? Were there really such “wise women” in Renaissance France?
3. The Daughters of the Earth make a distinction between black magic and white magic. The Catholic Church and its witch-hunting inquisitors do not agree; to them, all magic is evil. What is your opinion?
4. Catherine de Medici is presented as a villain, a Daughter of the Earth who has chosen to follow the path of black magic. But given the time and her position, not to mention the difficulties faced by any woman of talent and ambition in a male-dominated society, is she really to be condemned for utilizing every advantage in the struggle for power? Is she being held to a different standard than would apply to a man of the time?
5. How important is historical accuracy in a romance like the Dark Queen? Where do you think that the author strays from the historical record, and why?
6. Ariane Cheney inherits the title and responsibilities of the Lady of Faire Isle from her mother. Does that mean she is the wisest or the most powerful Daughter of the Earth on the island? If not, what is the significance of the title?
7. Magic involving the dead is known as necromancy and is generally viewed as the blackest of black magic. Yet Ariane employs necromancy three times in order to commune with the spirit of her mother. Doesn’t that make her evil, regardless of her intentions?
8. Is the spirit of Ariane’s mother too quick to forgive her husband for his betrayal of her with one of the Dark Queen’s Flying Squadron? And is Ariane to slow to forgive him?
9. Why is Gabrielle Cheney so suspicious of the Comte de Renard? Are her suspicions justified in any way?
10. How did Gabrielle lose her powers? Do you believe her powers are truly gone, or is she psychologically blocked from using them
11. What abilities set Miri apart from her older sisters?
12. Do you think the portrayal of the Inquisition in The Dark Queen is a fair and accurate one?
13. What evidence is there in the novel that the religious beliefs of the Daughters of the Earth are valid? Is there any evidence in the novel for the validity of the religious beliefs of Catholics and Protestants? On the whole, where do you think the author’s sympathies lie?
14. What initially draws Justice Deauville, the Comte de Renard, to Ariane?
15. If you were a woman pursued by Renard in the manner that he pursues Ariane, how would you react?
16. What is the magic of the rings worn by Ariane and Renard? Are the rings black magic?
17. How are Melusine and Catherine de Medici alike? In what ways are they different? Which did you find a more sympathetic character, and why?
18. There are many traditional fairy tale motifs in this romance. How many can you identify? How has the author adapted them to her story?