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'L'alchimiste des Ombres cover

Paris, 1633. In his offices in the Palais Cardinal, Cardinal Richelieu, first minster of France, works late into the night to protect and uphold his master, King Louis XIII. France is powerful, but threats menace her borders—and her interior—constantly. France alone is free from the influence of the power-greedy ancestral dragons and their agents, the members of the Black Claw. A new threat is brewing, fermented by a fragment of the Black Claw who seek to set up a chapter of their organisation in France, and the Spanish Ambassador is putting pressure on the Cardinal. Only one force can safeguard king and kingdom: the Cardinal's Blades.

But following a disastrous mission five years before, the Blades have been disbanded and disgraced. Their leader, the sixty-something Captain La Fargue, is reluctant to recall them, smarting from betrayal and by Richelieu's repudiation of him. The Blades themselves are scattered, some perhaps lost beyond recall.

If I had to sum up The Cardinal's Blades in two words, they would be: great fun. This is the France of Alexandre Dumas and Fanfan la Tulipe: a land of flashing blades and break-neck chases, beautiful women and gallant warriors, of masquerades and midnight plots and sword play. The feel is that of classical Romance—we are here in the realms of The Three Musketeers—and while dragons and their schemes are the engine of the plot, they are shadowy, threatening creatures, far removed from the allies of Temeraire and Dragonflight. This is also alternate history, and history plays an important part in the plot.

Pierre Pevel is a major name in French fantasy. He won the French equivalent of the Hugo award, the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire in 2002, for his debut, Les Ombres de Wieldstadt, and the Prix Imaginales in 2005 for Les Enchantements d'Ambremer t.2 : L'Elixir d'oubli. The Cardinal's Blades is his sixth novel, published in France in 2007. Following the British edition, it will be published shortly in the U.S. by Pyr, while a translation of the sequel, L'Alchimiste des Ombres, is to follow from Gollancz next autumn.

Blades charts the reunion of the Blades and their first new mission. In its first half, Pevel juggles numerous plots as he introduces his characters and their circumstance, and it is not until around page 175 that the main plot takes centre stage. This has both good and bad results. There is a great deal of adventure in those first pages—a chase halfway across France, a skilful invasion of a thieves' den, a formal duel, and lots of swordfights. Pevel is able through these scenes to establish the characters of the Blades—the brave and decent Leprat, a member of the musketeers; the clever, cool-headed Saint-Lucq, in whose veins runs the blood of dragons; the spendthrift and worldly Gascon Marciac; the restless, haunted Baroness Agnès de Vaudreuil; the old solider Ballardieu; and the penurious but honourable fencing master Almadès. Their stories intertwine as we learn their strengths and weaknesses, skills and quirks. The pace is brisk—sometimes almost too much so, and the reader may (with Leprat) wish for more chance to rest before the next danger arrives. And these are not the only threads woven by Pevel: in addition to the Blades, we also follow the scheming Vicomtesse de Malicorne, a dragon and agent of the black Claw; her ally Gagnière; and the young guardsman Arnaud de Laincourt, who seems to be playing a game of his own amidst all the rest. There is a great deal for the reader to remember and it can be frustrating as Pevel jumps from character to character over several short chapters. There are some wonderful set pieces in this part—notably Leprat's desperate fight against five opponents in a wayside inn and Saint-Lucq's dealings with the Grand Coësre, the king of the thieves—but there are also perhaps some indulgences, notably Agnès' melancholy. We are introduced in detail, moreover, to a number of characters who then disappear from the plot, which can be both frustrating and confusing.

The second half is more coherent, focusing on the Blades' mission to locate a missing Spanish nobleman and foil the schemes of Madame de Malicorne. The pace calms and the reader is given more time to explore the milieu, which is wonderfully evoked. Pevel blends description and history with a careful hand. Here, for instance, is our introduction to Laincourt's lodgings:

[He] lived on rue de la Ferronerie which ran between the neighbourhoods of Sainte-Opportune and Les Halles. . . . Broad, almost four metres across and heavily used, it was a place of sad memories: it was here that Ravaillac had stabbed Henri IV when the royal coach was halted by the busy street traffic. But this detail aside, Laincourt's address was quite commonplace. He rented accommodation in a house similar to many others in Paris: tall and narrow, crammed in between its neighbours, with a small shop on the ground floor. (p. 90)

Details of place names, histories of buildings and bridges, and references to important events are scattered throughout to paint a rich (if sometimes rather odoriferous) image of seventeenth century Paris, then still a largely mediaeval city. The two maps provided at the end of the book are almost superfluous as a result. For anyone with knowledge of French history, there is a great deal of pleasure to be gained from the references and playful alterations (a wyvern in place of a horse in a statue on the Pont-Neuf, for instance).

L'Alchimiste des Ombres takes place very shortly after the events of Blades. A beautiful but dangerous female spy—shades of Dumas's Milady—brings news of a plot against King Louis XIII, and the Blades are set to unravelling the truth of her words and foiling the plans of the conspirators. In this second instalment, Pevel draws us more deeply into the world of dragons and their lizard-like creations, the dracs, while upping the stakes for his central characters (notably Leprat and Laincourt). Its plot ultimately hinges on a clever historical twist which had me jumping up and down with delight. But at the same time the historical elements do not slow down the narrative, nor do you need to be at all well acquainted with the history of France to follow the story. Fans of Dumas will find additional delights in revisiting familiar scenes—most particularly the courtyard of the Hôtel de Tréville, which Pevel lays out in a scene that is deliciously flavoured with The Three Musketeers. As a further treat, there is a cameo from Athos in Blades and another from d'Artagnan and the Cardinal's guard Biscarrat (with a passing reference to Porthos) in L'Alchimiste. I am confidently expecting to encounter Aramis in volume three. This is one of the best homages to Dumas to have come along in years: easily up there with Steven Brust's Phoenix Guards series.

There are problems. Pevel sometimes overdescribes—we hear rather too much about the putrid nature of the Parisian mud, for instance, and about what characters are wearing. There are a few too many references to Agnès' beautiful, badly behaved hair and her brilliant eyes and the pleasant curves of the maidservant Naïs. The characters are colourful and entertaining, but the brush strokes can be broad and this is sometimes unsatisfying. The only characters with a fully developed inner life are Leprat and Laincourt. This is partly a function of the number of characters: rightly, some of them play secondary roles and have less time in the spotlight. But La Fargue remains frustratingly enigmatic: there is a secret there, but Pevel works too hard at not telling us anything that might give it away. Marciac at first is an engaging rogue, but he fades out rather, particularly in L'Alchimiste where he is as much comic relief as anything—and, as with La Fargue, there are frustrating hints of things the author is not telling us. The same game is played with Saint-Lucq, but here it works: his mysteries sit very well with the character as presented. The female characters are less well achieved than the male—this, it should be noted, is in line with the model provided by Dumas. The most successful is probably the Duchesse de Chevreuse in volume two, a historical figure. Agnès came close to annoying me at several points: she is a little too haunted and beautiful, and while we hear of her prowess as a swordswoman, we most often see her involved in charades and escape attempts. As mentioned above, the first part of Blades is sometimes confusing and overcrowded. And—a sentence I never imagined myself writing—there may be slightly too many sword fights in Blades. Pevel writes a good fight, but after a while they begin to blur into one another. By contrast, L'Alchimiste has slightly too few: for the first two thirds he cuts away at the beginning of the bouts and returns to show us our heroes victorious.

I read Blades in both French and English; L'Alchimiste in French only. Tom Clegg's translation is clean and clear throughout, if occasionally a little flat. This is arguably not his fault: Pevel employs idioms which do not always work as well in English. "Impassive" simply does not have quite the same texture as "rester de marbre." Pevel is—like Dumas—a sometimes florid writer, and his style can look overblown in English "her emerald green eyes, in which burned a cold flame" (p. 13). The English edition is a good read: entertaining and colourful and pacey.

However, reading the two editions in parallel drew my attention to something that is frequently invisible to a reader: the editing. The English edition expunges the prologue of Lames. This means that the book opens with a long scene of Richelieu at work and slightly undermines the first appearance of Madame de Malicorne. (The prologue describes the bloody ritual by which she retains her youthful human form, in a scene very reminiscent of the high coloured, melodramatic but hugely fun opening of Dumas's Count Cagliostro). The removal of the prologue does not affect the plot of Blades, but if repeated with L'Alchimiste will create some confusion, especially with the end of the book. Apart from the prologue, there are no large omissions, but a number of sentences have been removed. Sometimes it can be seen why: places where the text is perhaps repetitive or something is overexplained. On the other hand, on p. 29, we read, "It was common to breakfast in the morning, dine at midday and eat supper in the evening." This looks rather facile: why has the author told us this? Here, in comparison is the French: "À cette époque, on déjeuner le matin, diner à midi et soupait le soir" (At that time, one ate breakfast in the morning, dined at midday and had supper in the evening," Lames, p. 34.) It is a tiny difference, but the French adds something to Pevel's picture of the seventeenth century. The English does not.

Such changes are not serious, but they can be irritating, and, for me, at least, added nothing to the pace of the story. In places, too, the omission of part-sentences damages the rhythm and rather flattens the prose. In English, the opening of chapter 23 reads, "Sitting at the table in an empty tavern, whose keeper was sweeping the floor at the end of a very long day, the Gascon was glowering into the bottom of his glass . . . " (p. 110). Fair enough, but it requires the reader to remember that "the Gascon" is Marciac, who we haven't seen for twenty pages: in between we have had an exciting chapter following Saint-Lucq into the stews of Paris and another establishing something important about Leprat. The French opening reads, "Marciac, maussade, avait bu. Attablé dans une taverne déserte . . . ." This establishes who we are now following and tells us something of his mood (dismal). I cannot see why this was cut: it creates confusion and spoils the rhythm. The most irritating decision, for me at least, is around names. Why leave the "è" in Agnès, a name that is familiar and easy to pronounce in English, but omit it from Almadès, who becomes Almades throughout? Almadès is the sole non-French member of the Blades: he's a Spaniard. The name has a foreign ring in French—Al-ma-des, not, as might be expected, "Al-mad." This is minor, but it is also curious. Names are one of Pevel's strengths: Almadès is a Dumas reference (one of Aramis's pseudonyms is the duke of Alméda). Malicorne is another reference (to a character who appears in Louise de la Vallière): it is also a word-play (licorne is unicorn) and Madame de Malicorne sports a unicorn brooch. Gagnière has overtones of "winner." And there is a street bravo with the wonderful, self-selected name of "Malencontre." He is indeed bad to meet.

But these issues are not something which will, I suspect, trouble the vast majority of readers and they are minor. Overall, Gollancz should be congratulated on commissioning an English edition. The Cardinal's Blades is a splendid romp, and I shall be looking forward to the translation of L'Alchimiste des Ombres which is due in September 2010. In French or English, this series is an excellent read, and, as I said earlier, great fun!

Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (Daw, 2009), and is the reviews editor for Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. As Kari Maund, she is an historian of Britain in the early Middle Ages and has published five books and many articles in that field. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: The True Story of d'Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos. She lives and works in Cambridge, England.

Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (DAW 2009, winner of the 2010 Sydney J Bounds Award, shortlisted for the William L Crawford Award and a Tiptree Award Honor List book) and The Grass King’s Concubine (DAW 2012). As Kari Maund, she’s an academic mediaeval historian, and author of five books on early Welsh, Irish, and Scandinavian history. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: The True Story of d’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
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