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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

“The Cardinal’s Blades” by Pierre Pevel (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Order “The Cardinal’s BladesHERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Pierre Pevel, one of the foremost writers of modern French fantasy, is the author of seven novels including two award winners (2002 Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire and 2005 Prix Imaginales) for Best Novel. “The Cardinal’s Blades” is Pierre’s first novel to be translated into English.

PLOT SUMMARY: Paris, 1633. Louis XIII reigns over France . . . and Cardinal Richelieu governs the country. One of the most dangerous and most powerful men in Europe, Richelieu keeps a constant, sharp eye on the enemies of the Crown to avoid their assassination attempts, thwart their spies and avert their warmongering. But he's up against people who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals, even going so far as to forge alliances with France's oldest and deadliest enemies: Spain, and the Court of Dragons.

Faced with the growing threat from Spain, Richelieu summons Captain La Fargue, an exceptional swordsman, devoted officer and brilliant leader. If he's to turn aside the Black Claw's schemes, La Fargue and his legenday company of swashbucklers and rogues must be persuaded to once again risk their lives, fortunes and reputations for Richelieu, and for France.

It's the biggest challenge yet for the Cardinal's Blades, and they'll need to be sharp...

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 384 pages divided over four Parts—each Part is then divided into numbered chapters—and an Epilogue. Also includes a couple maps of Paris. Narration is in the third person via numerous characters including Cardinal Richelieu, Captain La Fargue, Arnaud de Laincourt, Nicolas Marciac, Vicomtesse de Malicorne, Gagnière, Saint-Lucq, Leprat d’Orgueil, Almades, etc. “The Cardinal’s Blades” is the first book in a series, but reads as a self-contained story neatly wrapping up events. It also ends on a couple of minor cliffhangers that promises to be explored in future volumes. The second book in the series, “The Alchemist in the Shadows”, is tentatively slated for UK publication in 2010.

November 19, 2009 marks the UK Hardcover & Trade Paperback publication of “The Cardinal’s Blades” via Gollancz. The English version was translated by Tom Clegg. The original French version was published in 2007 by Braglonne.

ANALYSIS: If Alexandre Dumas had written a fantasy novel, it would probably look something like Pierre Pevel’sThe Cardinal’s Blades”, which takes Dumas' swashbuckling adventure, intrigue and historical setting, and adds dragons to the mix—think The Three Musketeers meets Naomi Novik’s Temeraire. A cool concept in theory, but does it work? Well, yes and no...

On the plus side, “The Cardinal’s Blades” is a lot of fun to read. The action, as promised, is non-stop, driven by short 3-4 page long chapters and multiple subplots; the intrigue is engaging and devious, full of little twists and turns with nearly every character in the book harboring a secret of some sort or hidden allegiance; the cast of characters is extensive, diverse and likeable; humor is light and enjoyable; and some familiar faces appear in the book including Cardinal Richelieu, Comte de Rochefort, and even Athos :) In short, “The Cardinal’s Blades” successfully captures the spirit of Alexandre Dumas, and should immediately appeal to anyone who is a fan of swashbuckling adventure.

Fantasy lovers however, are not quite as lucky. For while the historical, swashbuckling and intrigue aspects are handled beautifully, the fantasy elements in the book are drastically understated. Yes, there are dragons and magic in “The Cardinal’s Blades” in the form of the Black Claw order, wyverns (racial cousins of the dragons who serve mankind as winged mounts), half-bloods, dragonnets (used as pets or messengers), dracs (a race spawned by the dragons in order to serve them), the ranse disease (originated from dragons), and a Sphère d’ Áme (houses the soul of an Ancestral Dragon), but so little time is spent on fleshing out these elements—a few paragraphs here and there—that they feel more like garnish than an integral part of the novel. This problem also extends to the story which primarily focuses on the machinations between France, Spain, the Cardinal’s Blades and the Black Claw, as opposed to the greater threat in the Court of Dragons. Basically, if the author had spent as much time and effort on developing the fantasy parts of the novel as he did the rest of the book, then “The Cardinal’s Blades” would have been profoundly better.

Other problems with the book includes a plot that takes a long time to develop (nearly 180 pages before the Cardinal’s Blades are reformed and their mission revealed); the blunt manner in which the author spells out everything that is happening intrigue-wise, as if it would be too difficult for the reader to folllow—it’s not by the way; and the characterization, or lack thereof. Of the last, because there are so many characters in the novel and because the chapters are so short, very little character development is going on apart from establishing a few main traits: Marciac is roguish and a womanizer, Almades is serious and reserved, La Fargue is the grizzled leader, etc. As a result, it’s very hard to actually care about anyone in the book—they are mostly recognizable stock figures anyway—regardless of how fun their narratives may be. Finally, I found the prose to be surprisingly plain and economical, especially for an award-winning author, although that may be more due to the translation than Pierre Pevel’s actual writing style.

CONCLUSION: In the end, Pierre Pevel’sThe Cardinal’s Blades” is a fast and fun reading experience, but is plagued by a few fundamental problems and lacks the substance and depth to be anything more than a good summer read. It’s also a book that I believe will appeal more to fans of Alexandre Dumas, swashbuckling adventures, and alternate histories than those of epic fantasies. Fortunately, being a fan of Dumas myself as well as fantasy, I enjoyed reading “The Cardinal’s Blades” and look forward to continuing the series...


Mihai A. said...

Very nice review as always :)
"The Cardinal's Blades" is my next reading and I think I will start reading it this week-end. I am also a great fan of Alexandre Dumas and of fantasy literature so I am very curious to see what this novel is about.

The Fantasizer said...

Good review makes me wanna get the book myself, being a dumas fan!

By the way where's Liviu, he has'nt been coming up with new reviews lately and I must admit although I like all of you guys, I like his reviews best, perhaps because of his choice in books.
Please convey my appreciation of his efforts.

Robert said...

Thanks Mihai and The Fantasizer! I'm glad you enjoyed the review and hope you like the book :) Mihai, I'm interested to see what you think about it...

The Fantasizer, no need to worry, Liviu is still around :) He's just been busy with some stuff and needed to take a little break. He actually has plenty of reviews in the works, many of which are listed under the 'Noteworthy Releases' sidebar...


Gabriele Campbell said...

Hm, I should try and find the French original of that. I like both Dumans and GRR Martin, so it sounds like some reading fun for me.


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