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Book: “Mademoiselle Revolution” by Zoe Sivak
Publishing Info: Berkley Books, August 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.
Book Description: A powerful, engrossing story of a biracial heiress who escapes to Paris when the Haitian Revolution burns across her island home. But as she works her way into the inner circle of Robespierre and his mistress, she learns that not even oceans can stop the flames of revolution.
Sylvie de Rosiers, as the daughter of a rich planter and an enslaved woman, enjoys the comforts of a lady in 1791 Saint-Domingue society. But while she was born to privilege, she was never fully accepted by island elites. After a violent rebellion begins the Haitian Revolution, Sylvie and her brother leave their family and old lives behind to flee unwittingly into another uprising–in austere and radical Paris. Sylvie quickly becomes enamored with the aims of the Revolution, as well as with the revolutionaries themselves–most notably Maximilien Robespierre and his mistress, Cornélie Duplay.
As a rising leader and abolitionist, Robespierre sees an opportunity to exploit Sylvie’s race and abandonment of her aristocratic roots as an example of his ideals, while the strong-willed Cornélie offers Sylvie safe harbor and guidance in free thought. Sylvie battles with her past complicity in a slave society and her future within this new world order as she finds herself increasingly torn between Robespierre’s ideology and Cornélie’s love.
When the Reign of Terror descends, Sylvie must decide whether to become an accomplice while a new empire rises on the bones of innocents…or risk losing her head.
Review: Thank you to Berkley Books for sending me access to an eARC of this novel via NetGalley!
I remember a few years ago I was at a party that was thrown by a former work colleague, and I was sitting on the couch with my friend Scott as we played introverts and talked to each other for almost two hours as we caught up and enjoyed each other’s company. We ended up talking about the ills of society, and he made some comment about guillotines and the French Revolution, and as I sipped my mixed drink I said ‘yeah, but then you get Robespierre. I don’t want Robespierre!’ I’ve had a chip on my shoulder about Robespierre ever since we learned about the French Revolution in tenth grade. Like, what a dick! A timeless tale of someone who had good intentions but then was completely corrupted by power and then turned into a goddamn blood soaked monster in an effort to hold onto his power.
Needless to say, when I found an email from Berkley Books in my folder tempting me with “Mademoiselle Revolution”, a story about a biracial woman who fled Haiti during their Revolution only to find herself cozying up to Robespierre during the French Revolution, I was immediately on board. BRING ON THE ROBESPIERRE DISSECTION AND HOPEFULLY SLANDER!
But even better, “Mademoiselle Revolution” is a story that has a deeply resonant heart, centered by its protagonist Sylvie de Rosiers, a biracial woman who grew up in privilege due to her father’s status as a plantation owner, though her mother was one of the enslaved women he owned whom he raped and exploited. Sylvie was raised in her father’s home and treated like family, though her lineage and the color of her skin made it so she never truly belonged, even as she got to live in lavish luxury while other people who looked like her were being subjected to daily brutality and dehumanization. It is when the Haitian Revolution is at her doorstep and her family flees that Sylvie starts to grapple with the Otherness she has always dealt with, and her complicity to a system that she had the privilege to be mostly removed from. It makes for a complex and nuanced character from the jump, and it sets up to make all of her choices, once she and her loving brother Gaspard end up in Paris, make perfect sense. I really loved seeing Sylvie evolve in this story as she tries to make up for her complicity, and how she dives head first into the romanticism and justice seeking angles of the rumbling French Revolution as she gets close to Robespierre and his lover Cornélie, and how her guilt and optimism and naïveté send her into dangerous waters. Sivak tackles the racial politics and racism of the time and the cultures at hand with deftness, and shows the seeming contradictions of Sylvie’s experiences with ease and in a way that makes it very understandable. She is also that really well done main character who interacts with historical figures without feeling like it’s overdone or unrealistic. Sylvie’s role is well conceived enough that I totally bought into all of the scenarios and relationships that Sivak put her in, and that says a lot. Because Sylvie does a LOT.
I also really liked how Sivak shows that complexities of a group of true believers whose hearts start in the right place, and then become corrupted as time goes on. That’s my biggest issue with Robespierre at the end of the day; he wasn’t wrong about the corruption and the violence of the French Aristocracy. But when you start cutting the heads off of anyone you please because you THINK they may disagree with you, that’s when you become a whole other problem. And Sivak has a lot of horrifying moments in this book that really hit home how off point the message became, which led to a lot of suffering and then Napoleon friggin’ Bonaparte. There is one scene in particular that involved a severed head being put on display around town, specifically in a cafe, and used in a way that is SO dehumanizing and disgusting that it made my blood run cold. Sivak does a fantastic job of showing just how horrific the Reign of Terror, and the violence leading up to it, was, and how people like Robespierre are more than willing to exploit and use people like Sylvie to get what they want. It is intense and it makes for some very suspenseful moments, and that is why I am classifying this as a thriller as well as an historical fiction title. It’s absolutely harrowing at times, watching the walls close in on the circle of revolutionaries as they turn on each other.
I really enjoyed “Mademoiselle Revolution”. It is sure to wow fans of political thrillers and historical fiction alike. Go out and get your hands on this book!
Rating 9: Engaging, intense, and harrowing, “Mademoiselle Revolution” is a historical political thriller that explores identity, race, revolution, and the dangers of fanaticism.