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by Delia Sherman

Pub Date: May 6th, 1993
ISBN: 0-525-93608-4
Publisher: Dutton

Combining history, fairy tale, and period literary fashions, Sherman (the paperback Through a Brazen Mirror) offers a sprawling 18th-century epic that could be improved with some 20th-century editing. The narrator is the loyal no-nonsense Berthe Duvet, personal maid to the woman who becomes the Duchess of Malvoeux on her marriage to the duke of a beautiful duchy in the Jura mountains of France. Like Camelot, the chateau of the duchy exists out of time: 200 years have passed since the French Revolution, a perilous time for the ducal family when the chateau was sacked and the lands destroyed, but a magic spell has since turned it into a ``fairy kingdom'' where every need is served by ``creatures of magic,'' the weather never varies, and the Baroque palace is filled to the ``rafters with a most sumptuous profusion of treasures.'' A certain Colette, whose short life played a decisive role in the fate of the Malvoeux family, suggests that Berthe write the history of the chateau. And this Berthe proceeds to do, beginning with her childhood in Paris, her service with the young duchess, and their move to this chateau filled with objects collected by a family driven by a passion to possess—a passion that has not escaped the current duke, who collects exotic birds. Meanwhile, French history is also moving at a fast clip, and Berthe adds at length her impressions of those stirring times. She soon learns that there's something dark in the family past. A beggar appears to remind the family of his curse—a curse to be removed only when a white porcelain bird is found. The search is joined, past crimes are finally revealed, the curse is lifted—only to be replaced with a more benign but no less confining enchantment. A dazzling display of period detail, and a slew of authentic- seeming characters—but all disappointingly held in thrall to a narrative that lumbers on to a by-now-longed-for end.