January 03, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

First-time author Lisa Hilton’s study of the stunning and witty Athenais de Montespan, the most infamous of Louis XIV’s mistresses, unfolds amid the dangerous liaisons of the Sun King’s court. If you can navigate the various intrigues of the French nobility, this is a fascinating look at a decadent world, in which Athenais’ seduction of the king, reign as maitresse, and scandalous downfall are chronicled in compulsive detail. Hilton’s highly sympathetic portrait casts Athenais as the heroine of a touching love story — which just happens to have taken place at the center of European civilization: ”Like all lovers, Athenais and Louis must have lain…in one another’s arms believing the world made new for them. In their case, it was true.”

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