Friday, 13 November 2009

‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ – Pierre Pevel (Gollancz)

When you’re off for a weekend in Paris and a book arrives promising a mixture of Cardinal Richelieu. Musketeers and dragons... Well, there’s really no choice but to take it with you! As it turned out, ‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ ended up playing second fiddle to Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘Finch’ but I still managed to find the time to get stuck in (both in Paris and throughout the commute this week). Readers of the blog will know that I am always up for anything with a hint of swashbuckling about it but ‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ also offered me the chance to start filling in a gap in the blog that I’ve never been aware of until now. I’ve never really read outside my own language, more than likely due to the fact that high school was a long time ago now and I’ve totally forgotten the little I’ve learnt in the way of foreign languages (French and German, I wasn’t particularly good at either of them). ‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ is a translated work (Tom Clegg did the honours here) but I figured that it was a start at least in terms of redressing the balance on the blog.
‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ isn’t without its issues but the bottom line is that I couldn’t put it down until I was finished. Are there any more books about the Cardinal’s Blades? I hope so...

The year is 1633 in a France totally different to that which you may have read about. The big difference is the proliferation of tame dragonets and wyverns that are made use of by the populace and the shadowy Black Claw sect that looks on France, with covetous eyes, from Spain. Louis XIII may reign over France but it is Cardinal Richelieu that rules the country; working constantly to thwart assassination attempts, espionage and other threats to the throne. The threat from the Black Claw is great and there is only one way to counter it; Captain La Fargue must reform the ‘Cardinal’s Blades’, an elite band of swashbucklers who were once ready to risk all for France. Are they ready to take up the fight once more? Will their best be enough, even if they are...?

‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ is one of those books where I find myself really wishing that I spoke the original language that it was written in (French) so I could get a proper feel for this book and what it’s all about. Not that there’s anything majorly wrong with the translation. Clegg takes the original text and reworks it into an English version that doesn’t seem to spare any of the detail. Or does it? An overabundance of descriptive pieces (about the history of certain locations or simply what they look like) has the unfortunate effect of slowing the book down to a crawl when it really needs to be gearing up for a sprint. I also found that the relative shortness of each chapter (and the constant switching back and forth between characters) lent a choppy air to the pace which made it difficult to stay with the story. I was left wondering if translating ‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ into English robbed the piece of the more natural flow that it may have enjoyed as a book written in French. Has anyone here read the original French version? If you have, how did it work for you?

Luckily, ‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ is one of those books where a little persistence over the flaws uncovers a book that is well worth sticking with. Any book where I get to the end and am left wanting a sequel has to be doing something right!

When it gets going, ‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ is a rip roaring mixture of sword fights, spies, evil schemes and (best of all) dragons. While the dragons are very much present in the book, Pevel doesn’t hang the whole story on this concept and things work all the better for it. The ‘matter of fact reference’ to dragons (and the Black Claw sect) makes their presence all the more plausible whilst giving the ‘spy plotline’ a chance to shine. And shine it does! Big cities have ever been a breeding ground for labyrinthine schemes and seventeenth century Paris is no exception! Everyone has something going on and all credit to Pevel for bringing such a large number of schemes together to form a plot that’s driven forward by answers that spawn yet more questions. Anything can happen and Pevel’s deliberate vagueness about his characters ensures that it invariably does. Pevel also has some real surprises for his readers, especially regarding the Blades themselves. Here’s a group that’s proof that no matter how close knit a team is, self interest will always undermine a common aim... Pevel saves some real surprises up for the very end and their impact is intensified by the amount of time that the reader has had to get used to certain people. I’ll admit to getting a little lost with it at times but it certainly all came together at the end!

Pevel adds colour to all of this by including sword fights and rooftop chases that I thought were the very definition of ‘swashbuckling’. Our heroes are cool under pressure, capable of delivering witty one liners whilst fighting off multiple foes and considering whether or not to jump through the nearest window. Swordfights are brutal yet delivered with a certain flourish; I wouldn’t mind seeing this on the screen...

‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ may have lost a little something in the translation (although I’ll never know for sure until I learn to read French!) but it remains a thoroughly entertaining read that I had a lot of fun with. The final pages hint at further developments and more adventures, I hope this is the case.

Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten


Pierre said...

"The final pages hint at further developments and more adventures, I hope this is the case."
It is ! According to the author french wikipedia page, a new book is out this year. I had never heard of the author before, I'll be sure to try it now (in french).

Val said...

I have the Dutch translation of this book gathering dust on my to read stack. I really should get around to reading it.