The Cardinal’s Blades by Pierre Pavel.
Published by Gollancz, November 2009. Originally by Bragelonne in France, 2007.
Review by Mark Yon
Firstly, a point for clarity: in my role as part of the Gemmell Legend Awards Committee I’ve met and talked through email to Pierre a couple of times. He’s a lovely chap, very unassuming and a genuine fan of the genre. He’s also the author of two award winning novels (2002 Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire and 2005 Prix Imaginales) for Best Novel, although The Cardinal’s Blades is Pierre’s first novel to be translated into English. It was a winner of the Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2009.
And therein lies the problem, in that it has put me off reading the book for a while. I really liked the idea when it was explained to me in 2007, but what if I didn’t actually like it? And would reading it conflict with my ‘other’ duties?
Well, I really shouldn’t have worried. Now that I have (finally) got round to reading it, The Cardinal’s Blades is a rip-roaring romp that can be truly said to be swashbuckling.
In summary, and perhaps a little unfairly, it can be summarised as ‘The Three Musketeers with dragons’. And although this is a fair assessment, it’s not the only thing that made me enjoy this book.
Yes, like Dumas, the tale is set in France in the 1600’s, under the rule of Louis XVIII. Like Dumas, in 1633 we also have a Cardinal Richelieu, who is Louis’s principal minister and spymaster: like Francis Walsingham to England’s Queen Elizabeth I (1573 until 1590).
The extra layer to this rather historical novel is that, like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire tales, we have dragons. And there are some intriguing points made throughout the novel to show this. Richelieu has a pet dragonet often perched on his shoulder. Dragons are used for communication, with wyverns ridden like horses. There are dracs, half-breed people, created by human male fathers and dragon mothers. Though in human form (with dragon-like eyes), they have superb reflexes and inhuman strength. Dragons are also able to take on human appearance so they intermix with humans in public. Humans can catch a disease, the ranse plague, from dragons, though its exact cause and cure are unknown.
The Cardinal’s Blades are the legendary group rumoured to have carried out secret missions on the cardinal’s behalf. Disbanded after some ‘nasty business during the siege of La Rochelle’, Richelieu and the Crown have need of them again, as there are signs that the Black Claw, a dragon-led secret society, are up to no good, dealing in secret with France’s enemy, Spain. Led by the beautiful-blonde-looking Vicomtesse de Malicorne, the Black Claw are the Blades’ nemesis in this tale.
The first part of the novel therefore introduces us, in the third person, to the original members of the group, led by Captain LaFargue, as they are summoned to return to Paris. This means that we meet a motley group of superb swordsmen and women, all currently pursuing alternative lifestyles. We’re introduced to the characters that make up the band. These include Nicolas Marciac, who spends his time running up debts and duelling, living off the money he makes in such matters. Red spectacle-wearing Saint Lucq is a half-dragon, half human assassin. Arnaud de Laincourt is a Blade suspected of being a traitor to France. We have to add to this a strong heroine, Baroness Agnes de Vaudreuil. The weak point for me was the unfortunately named LePrat (who manages to get injured!) is a bit of a misstep, though clearly just one of those names that just translates badly internationally…
Whilst I’m mentioning the odd misstep, there’s a couple of plot points that jar a little: a survival from ‘death’ that seems a little too convenient, and some other very violent if not visceral deaths. For a book with such a clear point about dragons to make, it was interesting that for much of this book their presence is implied rather than shown. Some readers might complain at the lack of dragons, at least initially, though this did not bother me as it is clear that they are integrated into this society and so seen not as a novelty but as part of the furniture, as it were. By the end the dragons are back, and no doubt will appear more in the next book in the series.
The ‘plusses’ definitely outweigh the minor ‘minuses’ though. The tale’s fast paced, accentuated by the short chapters that flit from character to character. Initially this can make the characters a little interchangeable, but one we’ve got used to them, the pages fly. The prose, no doubt helped by the English translation by Tom Clegg, is great and really made the book feel strangely, yet appropriately, French. This, and the detail of places throughout, added to the allure of the tale.
A real strength of this book is the fight scenes. The action’s pretty frenetic. We’ve swordfights a-plenty, rooftop battles and lots of visits to inns, with alleyway brawls, point-blank shootings and lots of galloping horses. Not to mention some rather extensive dragon damage towards the end.
All in all, a great read. Sorry I arrived late to this one. Can’t wait to get to the next!
Mark Yon, November 2011.