Faces of the Dead is historical fiction with an occult twist that makes use of the switched identities trope.
Marie-Therese-Charlotte of France, Madame Royale, daughter of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, has a good friend in Ernestine, whose mother is a chambermaid. Marie-Therese's mother, the Queen arranged for Ernestine to be her daughter's companion and they become good friends. The two girls look so remarkably alike that few people can tell them apart and so beginning around the age of twelve take advantage of this by often switching places. By the time they are sixteen, the two have switched places frequently because Marie-Therese is determined to learn what life is like outside the palace, to see the real France.
Ernestine tells Marie-Therese that she can sneak out of the palace by hitching a ride with Jacques who goes into Paris for supplies. On her first ride in with Jacques, Marie-Therese learns from him that the French people believe her mother is extravagant at the expense of the people and that she is an Austrian spy. On her own Marie-Therese meets a boy named Henri who tells her not to tell anyone that she works at the palace. Henri takes her to the workshop of Mademoiselle Grosholtz who recreates realistic figures in wax. Dr. Curtius taught Mademoiselle Grosholtz how to make wax figures and she has recreated scenes from many settings including Ancient Rome and Egypt and from Marie-Therese's home, at Versailles.
With Henri, Marie-Therese learns about the hatred directed towards her family by the people of Paris. She sees the sick and hungry children, the poor mothers and remembers when the women broke into the palace demanding food for their starving families. The revolutionaries, who wear the red, white and blue ribbons, want to kill Marie-Therese's mother and father and her family.
While she is gone, Ernestine, posing as Marie-Therese, meets Marie Therese's cousin, Louis-Antoine d'Angouleme, whom she is to marry. Ernestine enjoys the duc d'Angouleme's company but Marie-Therese is not able to connect so well with him, Louis-Antoine tells her that unless she is more like she was before (when he was talking to Ernestine) they will not be happy together.
At the Place de la Concorde, Marie-Therese sees the guillotine for the first time, and sees the people rioting in the streets, intent upon storming the palace and calling for her parents to be put to death. Afraid for her family she races back to Versailles, warning her father. Her father suggests they give the people food, while her mother believes that the gates will keep the frenzied crowds outside the palace grounds. However, the mob finds its way into Versailles but are not satisfied with the bread given to them. When the mob breaks into the palace, Marie-Therese, her younger brother Louis-Charles, Ernestine, and the king and queen attempt to escape but are forced back to Paris. When the carriage stops, Marie-Therese's Mama insists she leave and hide out telling her that her uncle from Austria is coming to take her. For three days Marie Therese waits and then heads back to Paris where she stays with Henri.
Eventually Marie-Therese and Henri become homeless after a series of misfortunes. Her family is placed at Tuileries where Marie-Therese sometimes goes to watch them in the courtyard. Eventually they discover that Mademoiselle Grosholtz has be freed and is working at Dr. Curtius's exhibit. With her is a beautiful dark-haired woman, Rose de Beauharnais who was born in Martinique and who has knowledge of magic. Mademoiselle Grosholtz tells them that she must collect the severed heads from the Place de la Revolution to make death masks of the beautiful and famous.
On their first day there, Marie-Therese learns that the women of Paris are planning to storm the Tulieres and kill the queen. Marie-Therese is carried along by the crowd, but manages to sneak away and warn her mother and family who escape into a secret safe room. When the riot is over,Monsieur Clery tells them they are expected at the National Assembly but Marie-Therese is told to go back to her life on the streets of Paris until the revolution is over. Mama gives her a velvet purse containing jewels and coins to help. Once outside again, Marie-Therese meets up with Henri who now reveals to her that he knows who she is. Henri also tells Marie-Therese that Mademoiselle Grosholtz also knows, but that they will not turn her it.
Months pass as Marie-Therese lives with Mademoiselle Grosholtz, helping her make her death masks. Henri and Marie-Therese fall in love despite the gory revolution. Will the revolution ever end and will Marie-Therese ever see her family again?
Faces of the Dead could have been an interesting story but it was marred by Weyn's choice of two very strange storylines; the first playing on the recently revived substitution theory which posits that Ernestine de Lambriquet bore a remarkable resemblance to Marie-Therese-Charlotte, Madame Royal and that they two may have switched places during the revolution, the second storyline involving Creole voodoo to revive the spirits of those guillotined during the revolution.
If Weyn had focused on the historical story of Marie-Therese and the French Revolution, the novel would have succeeded admirably. Because the author had to focus on two very different threads, neither really lived up to expectations. Historical fiction is successful if the author is able to recreate the time period and have the characters behave in a manner consistent with that era. Although Weyn succeeds in portraying the horror and gore of the revolution, neither Marie-Therese's actions nor the paranormal storyline are believable. As an aristocrat, Marie-Therese would have stood out on the streets of Paris both in the way she spoke and in the way she behaved. She lived a very isolated, privileged life at the palace, something ironically that Weyn effectively demonstrated in her parents reactions to the revolutionaries. As a person to whom every care was attended to, she likely would have been extremely shocked to see how the average French person lived and not so eager to partake of such a life. As to the substitution theory, it is widely regarded by historians as myth but readers will find the Author's Note which goes into greater depth about the mystery to be interesting. Readers might find the views on the blog, Tea At Trianon also interesting.
With a separate storyline based on the occult, Faces of the Dead strays from pure historical fiction. The paranormal storyline was not necessary and ultimately pushed the novel into the realm of ridiculous with Weyn using the spirit-calling as a way to reincarnate Marie-Anoinette at the end - a totally absurd notion.Weyn provides an interesting Author's Note at the back of her novel which goes into greater depth about the mystery.
Overall, a strange novel, whose dark, mysterious cover fits the paranormal storyline in Faces of the Dead.
Faces of the Dead by Suzanne Weyn
New York: Scholastic Press 2014