Historical romance with an unusual aura of historical plausibility--and a good thing too, for the plot of this 17th-century French adventure has more kinks than Louis XIV's ringlets. With a more literate flip than is standard in the genre, Backer tricks out three high-octane females of lofty, middling, and low degree: lady Catherine, daughter of a once-beautiful witch of a marquise who dabbles dangerously in politics; narrator Martine, Catherine's devoted ""soeur du lait"" who, although presumably the offspring of a peasant and tailor's son, shares Catherine's bed, board, and education; and Angelique, as ambitious and devoted to this world's goods as is her bailiff father. All three are oddly involved with one man, Gaspard, who turns out to be hardly worth the trouble. Spiritual Catherine is not allowed to marry Gaspard--is he, as Martine believes, really Catherine's brother? Martine will bear an illegitimate daughter who will eventually be raised as the ""legitimate"" issue of Gaspard (who becomes Angelique's heartily detested husband). But the preceding is merely a chip off a splendidly intricate tale which involves: an intermittently appearing, divided, and reassembled treasure of pink pearls; a veritable blizzard of bastards of exotic parentage; to-do's in courts and castles, stables, and salons--and a soupcÃ‡on of scandal set forth in couplets. It takes a certain nerve--not to mention wind--to keep all this afloat, but Backer (whose supposed feminist perspective is hardly noticeable) is sufficiently willing and able.