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The Executioner's Heir: A Novel of Eighteenth-Century France [Paperback]

Susanne Alleyn
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

2 Sep 2013
Charles-Henri Sanson has good looks, a fine education, and plenty of money: everything, in fact, that a stylish young Parisian could ask for. He also has an infamous family name—and he’s trapped in a hideous job that no one wants.

The last thing Charles ever wanted to be was a hangman. But he’s the eldest son of Paris’s most dreaded public official, and in the 1750s, after centuries of superstition, people like him are outcasts. He knows that the executioner’s son must become an executioner himself or starve, for all doors are closed to him; although he loathes the role and would much rather study medicine, society’s fears and prejudices will never let him be anything else. And when disaster strikes, family duty demands that Charles take his father’s place much sooner than he had ever imagined.

Miles outside Paris, high-spirited François de La Barre is the carefree teenager who Charles would like to have been, instead of the somber public servant, bound by the Sansons’ motto of duty and honor, who carries out brutal justice in the king’s name. François proves, though, in the elegant, treacherous world of prerevolutionary France, to have a dangerous gift for making enemies . . . and when at last their paths converge, in this true story of destiny and conflicting loyalties, Charles must make a horrifying choice.

"Alleyn’s exhaustive research pays off handsomely in well-drawn characters and colorful historical context. In particular, her female characters are refreshing in their range and willingness to defy stereotypes. A sequel would be welcome to this deftly imagined tale of the years before the French Revolution. A well-researched, robust tale featuring an endearing executioner." --Kirkus Reviews

(Starred Review) "Charles’s personal crisis and clashing loyalties evoke Greek tragedy, and speak to the issues that will resonate with readers." --Publishers Weekly


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Product details

  • Paperback: 348 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; First edition (2 Sep 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1492306797
  • ISBN-13: 978-1492306795
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.2 x 1.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,118,168 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

The granddaughter of children's author Lillie V. Albrecht (author of _Deborah Remembers_, _The Spinning Wheel Secret_, and three other historicals), Susanne Alleyn definitely doesn't write for children, unless, like her, they have found guillotines, high drama, and the French Revolution fascinating since the age of ten or so.

Susanne was born in Munich, Germany and grew up in Massachusetts and New York City. After studying acting and singing, and earning a B.F.A. in theater from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Susanne eventually came to the conclusion that, as an actor, she was quite a good writer, and that looking for an agent or publisher was still easier on the nerves than going to auditions. (She can, nevertheless, still sing a high C when requested.) Having been unwholesomely fascinated by the French Revolution since, at age 9, she read the Classics Illustrated comic-book version of _A Tale of Two Cities_, she set out to write about it. Her debut novel, _A Far Better Rest_, a reimagining of _A Tale of Two Cities_ (what else?) from the point of view of Sydney Carton, was published in 2000.

Though a longtime fan, she had never considered writing mysteries, however, until she suddenly found herself creating a historical mystery plot suggested by an actual series of murders committed in Paris in the early 1800s. Police agent Aristide Ravel made his first appearance in _Game of Patience_ and returned in _A Treasury of Regrets_, both set in Paris in the Directoire period of 1796-97. Prequels _The Cavalier of the Apocalypse_ and _Palace of Justice_, the third and fourth mysteries in the series, followed in 2009 and 2010. Susanne intends to cover the entire Revolutionary period in future Aristide Ravel novels.

In a foray into nonfiction, her latest work, _Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders_, is a writer's guide to avoiding errors and anachronisms in historical fiction. Her sixth novel, _The Executioner's Heir_, first in a pair of novels about hereditary 18th-century Parisian executioner Charles Sanson, will appear in 2013.

Susanne and her three cats live in Albany, NY. She speaks French very badly.

Product Description

About the Author

Susanne Alleyn has loved history all her life, aided and abetted by her grandmother, Lillie V. Albrecht, an author of historical children’s books in the 1950s and 60s. Susanne is the author of the Aristide Ravel historical mystery series, set in revolutionary Paris; A FAR BETTER REST, the reimagining of Dickens’s A TALE OF TWO CITIES; the nonfiction MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS: A WRITER’S (AND EDITOR’S) GUIDE TO KEEPING HISTORICAL FICTION FREE OF COMMON ANACHRONISMS, ERRORS, AND MYTHS; and A TALE OF TWO CITIES: A READER'S COMPANION, an annotated guide to the classic novel. Happy to describe herself as an “insufferable knowitall” about historical trivia (although she lost on Jeopardy!), Susanne has been writing about and researching eighteenth-century and revolutionary France for nearly three decades. She is currently working on the sequel to THE EXECUTIONER’S HEIR and various nonfiction projects. Read more at www.susannealleyn.com.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A human story and a remarkable book. 5 Oct 2013
By L. J. Roberts TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
First Sentence: "This is the sword of justice," Jean-Baptiste told him, lifting it from its long, straw-lined, padlocked crate.

Due to the illness of his father and pressure from his grandmother, Charles-Henri Sanson is forced to assume the position and title as the fourth generation hereditary master executioner of Paris. It is a position of title and power. It is also a role into which one is born and has no choice but to assume as no other professions are open to the inheritor of that role. Yet Charles must both learn his position and strive to maintain his humanity while so doing.

Ms. Alleyn wisely provides a "Cast of Characters" at the beginning of this book. This is critical, and very helpful in avoiding confusion, as she is dealing with many members of one family. That she takes this family, whose profession is as terrible as one could imagine, and make them both human and sympathetic is a remarkable accomplishment.

Charles is the antithesis of what one would imagine for his role, yet part of the power of the book is that it breaks down stereotypes. He is, to paraphrase another character's observation, prosperous, has a good education, nice manners and is very, very handsome. He also despises what he does,..."It was rather pathetic, Charles often thought, that among the crowds who came to stare at public chastisement, the one least eager to be present was the man in charge of the business." Conversely, his grandmother and sister are very matter of fact about the profession and proud of the family's title and status. That conflict makes for a very thoughtful reading.

The story deepens with the introduction of an antagonist. Although she has so done throughout the story, it is at this point, Ms. Alleyn forcefully speaks to our emotions.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Both a fascinating and an uncomfortable read 6 Aug 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I'm no expert but this felt historically accurate and well researched and the character study was fascinating. I did find the detailed accounts of horrific tortures and executions hard to take, and I don't think the book would have worked without quite so much of that.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A human story and a remarkable book. 5 Oct 2013
By L. J. Roberts - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
First Sentence: "This is the sword of justice," Jean-Baptiste told him, lifting it from its long, straw-lined, padlocked crate.

Due to the illness of his father and pressure from his grandmother, Charles-Henri Sanson is forced to assume the position and title as the fourth generation hereditary master executioner of Paris. It is a position of title and power. It is also a role into which one is born and has no choice but to assume as no other professions are open to the inheritor of that role. Yet Charles must both learn his position and strive to maintain his humanity while so doing.

Ms. Alleyn wisely provides a "Cast of Characters" at the beginning of this book. This is critical, and very helpful in avoiding confusion, as she is dealing with many members of one family. That she takes this family, whose profession is as terrible as one could imagine, and make them both human and sympathetic is a remarkable accomplishment.

Charles is the antithesis of what one would imagine for his role, yet part of the power of the book is that it breaks down stereotypes. He is, to paraphrase another character's observation, prosperous, has a good education, nice manners and is very, very handsome. He also despises what he does,..."It was rather pathetic, Charles often thought, that among the crowds who came to stare at public chastisement, the one least eager to be present was the man in charge of the business." Conversely, his grandmother and sister are very matter of fact about the profession and proud of the family's title and status. That conflict makes for a very thoughtful reading.

The story deepens with the introduction of an antagonist. Although she has so done throughout the story, it is at this point, Ms. Alleyn forcefully speaks to our emotions. One doesn't just end the story, one muses over it long after the last page is turned.

The historic detail doesn't just create a sense of time and place, but includes us and informs us. It is fascinating to learn the levels of what could and could not be done, both in terms of the punishments and types of executions for different levels of crimes and society, but how bodies were handled after death. We also learn about the legal process in the days before defense lawyers.

While "The Executioner's Heir" sounds as though it could be very grim, it is not. Yes, there are passages difficult to read, but never unnecessarily graphic. It is a very human story and, in the end, about a man deciding to be the best he can be. It is a remarkable book.

THE EXECUTIONER'S HEIR (Hist Novel-Charles-Henri Sanson-France-1760s) - Ex
Alleyn, Susanne - Standalone
Spyderwort Press (1st electronic edition), 2013
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strong Stuff, well handled, from one who knows her period! 19 Sep 2013
By Dr J - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Susanne Alleyn knows pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary France like nobody's business. And if the past is indeed a foreign country, this period in European history is more foreign than most. Alleyn has written a series of fascinating mysteries featuring a fictional protagonist, Aristide Ravel, who is a decent but complex guy in a very complex situation, as the French Revolution tilts out of control. Some of her characters are necessarily drawn from history, but most of them are invented by the author. (And I recommend them all.)

The Executioner's Heir is another matter. The central character and his family are all real people. They were part of a group of families in pre-Revolutionary France (c. 1750) whose men went into the family business, and whose daughters generally married into it. Not many other options are open to you if your Dad is the one in charge of breaking people on the wheel and similar punishments, but that doesn't mean those sons and daughters have to like it, and Charles Sanson definitely does not like it. Therein hangs our tale. What does a well-educated and thoughtful young man of the Enlightenment do when his father is struck down by a stroke and the family's fortunes hang upon his ability to step up and accept the responsibility for proficiently destroying the bodies and taking the lives of others?

I don't have an especially strong stomach, so I kept waiting for the moment when I really could not keep reading. Didn't happen. There were some really difficult passages, and some frightening foreshadowing, but the book held my interest and I hung in there even when I began to see the shape of what was coming.

One of Alleyn's other titles is the wonderful Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer's (& Editor's) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths. She practices what she preaches in that work: Know the period. Never assume. Look it up. I don't know eighteenth century France as she does, but I appreciate that thoroughness. Nevertheless, don't buy the book for that. (Surely there are textbooks?)

Buy it because The Woman Can Write.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another wonderful journey to 18th century France. 12 Sep 2013
By Valerie A. LaMont - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
After having read the Arisitde Ravel series of historical mysteries, I knew to expect that The Executioner's Heir would be both meticulously researched and well written. What I wasn't expecting was for the story to be so compelling. Ms. Alleyn takes the reader to a world of an old regime that is dying from within. She doesn't just show us the highlights, but she drops us into this world of arrogance and corruption as the people in it try to come to grips with its deficiencies as exposed by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. To do this she tells the story of Charles Sanson, reluctant executioner who must do his reluctant duty while realizing that while he may enforce the law, justice has very little to do with it. I could hardly put the book down to eat or sleep, and I cannot wait to become immersed in the sequel as the Sanson family must deal with the Revolution and their role in it.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Darkness and Light, Sin and Redemption 23 Oct 2013
By The Just-About-Average Ms. M - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
UPDATE! I am updating this review, removing it from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel site, and restoring it to its proper place. This lovely book made it to the semi-finals of the contest only to be pushed aside by some works whose presence at that level mystified me--I read the pages available and the reviews, and gave up, shaking my head and wondering about reading tastes. True enough--we all have different tastes. While The Executioner's Heir did not make it to the top of this particular contest, it has been adopted as required reading in an upper level university seminar on penal institutions, punishment, and torture in Early Modern Europe. So the author is in excellent company, I think.

REVIEW: I was directed to Susanne Alleyn's Aristide Ravel mysteries by a kindly soul who'd read several of my reviews of very bad historical fiction set during the French Revolution, and who empathized with my despair about ever finding something not only historically accurate but also well-written. After devouring the four books in about a week, I wondered if that happy experience could ever be repeated. It was, not with another mystery, but with an eloquent, often stark, often very human story of a conflicted young man, his family, its occupation, and the burdens and constraints that singular occupation placed on them all. The novel moved between the darkness of the deeds Sanson was obligated to perform, and the light of his close-knit family life, the notion of sin, on the part of the guilty and on those who dispensed the king's justice, and redemption in the commingled art--and practice--of healing, and of treating the condemned with a dignity they perhaps never received in life.

Charles Sanson, the adolescent son of the 18th-century master executioner of Paris Jean-Baptiste Sanson, was raised knowing he would inherit his father's title and his duties of carrying out the sentences imposed by the Ancien régime courts against French subjects of all classes. His father also taught him anatomy and basic medicine as a gift to the poor living near them who could otherwise receive no medical care and as a way to sometimes lessen the horrific functions he would later perform. His father also tried to teach him that while he would carry out the sentences handed down by the courts, he was not to question whether those sentences were justified, or whether the condemned person was guilty. Instead, Charles must try to exercise his required function at the same time he acknowledged the deep fears, the mortal weaknesses, and the humanity of each of his "patients," as Jean-Baptiste called them, never "victims," and make each execution as easy as possible, and as dignified as possible. I saw the evidence of this in two of the Ravel novels, one featuring Charles, the other his son, another Charles. This theme runs throughout this book, more poignant, somehow, if that's possible, and more real.

Not only does Charles have to grow to accept his family's occupation, but he also has to come to terms with whether he will carry on the tradition. Although his choices are few indeed, his father's sudden incapacitation lessens those choices immeasurably. The decisions he makes, then, finally lead him to confront the draconian culmination of at least two subplots weaving through this remarkable tale. Those confrontations, like every other dramatic nuance, are powerful, but never, ever predictable or over-done. Additionally, we see how holding the distinction of this unique title wears on Charles, denying him close friends and acquaintances outside the family's profession, and places him in the almost heartbreaking position of having a Parisian prostitute claim she is better than he is, thus robbing him of even that small comfort.

Charles and his family were real, and their occupation was real. Ms. Alleyn researched the few contemporaneous documents, letters, and memoirs about the Sansons. She kept her fictional account as rigorously accurate as even the most exacting historian could wish at the same time fleshing out her characters, particularly Charles, with utter believability. Not a false note anywhere, I can assure you. As with the Ravel mysteries, Paris and the immediate countryside are also characters, and flawlessly depicted in shades of sunlight and gloom, as the situation dictates. She is also careful to let the reader see that Paris, and indeed much of France, was in the 1750s and 1760s a splendidly dressed but rotting grande dame intent on preserving the last gasps of absolutism even while the Age of Reason challenged the old ways. So did Charles Sanson, but only in his heart.

The Executioner's Heir is a rarity, a book that is historically accurate and true to its time and a tale skillfully and compellingly told, with a theme that lasts beyond its time. It is good enough, in all respects, that I would include it in a reading list for my history classes as an example of a vivid slice of mid-18th century French history that is difficult to come by, even in non-fiction.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars LOVED IT!! 7 Sep 2013
By Karen H. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Taking a minor character, Charles Sanson (who happens to be a real person), from one of her Aristide Ravel mysteries (Palace of Justice), Ms. Alleyn has crafted a work of historical fiction that is fast-paced and well researched. In her new novel, Ms. Alleyn continues to demonstrate that she has her finger on the pulse of this time period. The various story lines capture the politics of the times as Sanson must prematurely assume his role as the executioner's heir and perform "duties" no young man should have to perform, all to protect the Paris Title and keep it in the family. I found the book held me enraptured from start to finish racing to the denouement with the tension building as the chapters moved between the protagonist's perspective and one of the antagonist's perspective. Then, I, as the reader, found release and solace the same way Sanson always found release and solace as the story came to its conclusion. If you love historical fiction, put this on your must read list, and by the way, if you love mysteries then you definitely have to try her Aristide Ravel series---they are AWESOME!!
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