The Cardinal's Blades (2009 UK / October 2010 USA) by Pierre Pevel is another fine example of the English-speaking world playing catch-up with the spellbinding genre fiction coming out of Europe. In this case, at least, we're only a couple years behind...
Mr Pevel goes completely bonkers in this fantastic reinterpretation of Dumas' literary universe. Cardinal Richelieu, the most powerful man in France, is playing a dangerous game to keep his country's foes at bay. When an important visiting dignitary goes missing, the Cardinal recalls his troop of pet warriors to duty - The Cardinal's Blades. The Blades are known for getting the hard jobs done - generally in roundabout, infuriating, illegal ways. Disbanded after a disastrous outing at the siege of La Rochelle (tip of the feathered hat to Dumas), the Blades had been sulking in their inactivity (again, very Dumas).
Once regathered, all hell breaks loose. The men (and woman) of the Blades are soon surrounded by enemies old and new. And, to be fair, their friends aren't particularly reliable. There's a race against time to track down the noble (who is quickly eclipsed by other missing personages), defeat an evil cult, and, naturally, skewer a lot of bad guys.
The plot, convoluted as it is, is purely incidental. Pevel nails Dumas. The Three Musketeers is one of my favorites, hell, I've even read a few of Dumas' countless sequels. Oft confused with a literary classic, it is really a tale of a handful of ill-behaved louts that fumble around arrogantly until they inadvertently save France (repeatedly). Although the swordsmen are primarily concerned with getting drunk and laid, they display a savvy knowledge of the complex political landscape. Plus, they're unstoppable in a fight. Dumas created some of the best in flawed protagonists, and his fragmented (but engaging) narrative style is the clear forerunner to trends in contemporary fantasy.
Mr Pevel gets it. His band of merry musketeers is little more than a group of savvy, talented thugs. They're slightly more focused than D'Artagnan and his friends, but only by the barest of margins. If it weren't for the iron will of Captain La Fargue, the leader of the Blades, the troop would accomplish nothing at all. As it is, most of their successes stem from being at the wrong place at the right time (plus, being damn good with pointy things).
The combination of the fantastic with the Renaissance is a smooth blend. Tiny dragons wing overhead. Big dragons do horrible things from the distance. The glamour of sorcery and enchantment mixes easily with the era's obsession with the other arts. The inclusion of genre elements is so natural that I'm almost surprised that Dumas hadn't done it himself.
Like Dumas, this is a wildly entertaining read with delightfully broken characters. Were I ten again, I'd be running around the park with sticks, pretending to be the half-dragon Saint-Lucq. Also like Dumas, The Cardinal's Blades isn't "great literature" - there aren't deeper themes or higher ideals at stake: this is a book of swashbuckling excess, and should be celebrated as such.
Tube journeys: A nice afternoon in the beanbag.
Format: Dead tree.
Rating: Eight crossed foils and a buttercup horse.