They are, in the best tradition of all such stories, a bunch of misfits. There’s Nicolas Marciac, the handsome Gascon duelist with an eye for the ladies; Almades, the staid Spanish fencing master with catlike grace; Agnès de Vaudreuil, the wild noblewoman; Antoine Leprat, the left-handed bladesman who carries a white rapier carved from a single dragon bone; and their grizzled commander, Captain La Fargue, with a reputation for caring more about honor than orders. Goodness knows Richlieu would have nothing to do with them if they weren’t so damned good.
This, then, is the latest fantasy sensation from France. Pierre Pevel’s tale of daring swordsmen defending La France from secret societies run by changeling dragons has already been a big hit in his native country. Encouraged by the success of Andrzej Sapkowski, Gollancz is bringing an English version of The Cardinal’s Blades to market in November. Is the English speaking world ready for this? En Garde!
Of course the big question you will all be asking is, “Aren’t they the bad guys?” Well, no. The bad guys, the hapless buffoons that D’Artagnan and his pals are always making fools of, are the Cardinal’s Guard. Pevel’s heroes are an entirely separate group. They are rather like early French SAS. They work for Richlieu because he’s the one who gets involved in all of the skullduggery. While the King’s Musketeers are busy protecting the honor of ladies and the like, the Cardinal’s Blades are busy getting on with the dirty work of keeping France safe from sorcery. Their relationship with their boss is not always very cordial, and of course La Fargue and Rochefort can’t stand each other.
That said, such a book would not be complete without a guest appearance from at least one of the blue-suited swashbucklers. Pevel knows his audience, and does not disappoint.
Indeed, the whole book does not disappoint expectations. It is simple, straightforward adventure with enough plot complexity to keep you reading and never quite sure which side everyone is on. There is dueling, there is gambling, there are beautiful women in tight corsets, and copious quantities of wine is drunk. It is a little slow to start, because Pevel takes quite a lot of time introducing his heroes and establishing their relationships before getting on with the plot. However, as this is the first volume of a continuing series, that’s probably worth doing.
The translation is by Tom Clegg. He is an American who works for Bragelonne, Pevel’s French publishers, mainly choosing English-language SF for them to translate in to French. You may have met him in Montréal. Tom has done a solid job, but without fireworks. That is, for the most part you would not notice in reading the book that it is a translation, though if you know French there are a few places where the structure of the original language shows through. What Tom, probably wisely, hasn’t tried to do, is go beyond translation and aim for showy prose. Given the nature of the book, I don’t see that as a problem.
The only remaining question is, “What about the dastardly English?” Well, for the most part they don’t get a look in. The bad guys in this book are mainly Spanish or French traitors (and dragons, of course). But, as I noted, this is the first book in a continuing series. All sorts of things could happen in later volumes.