Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Pierre Pevel, The Cardinal's Blades (2009)

Well, this is very jolly: essentially the Trois Mousquetaires plus dragons. So, to be clear, that’s Alexandre Dumas, père:

—not a slim man, as you can see—and dragons:

Anyway. We’re in a fantasied-up 17th-century France; Cardinal Richelieu plots and schemes; gentlemen fight duels, quoff in taverns, roister and doister, and the Parisian streets are coated in merde. In this world there are dragons—not only actual dragons (‘the ancestral breed’) but tame dragons, used as a sort of flying horse, and lots of cat-sized dragons who roam the streets of Paris like, well, cats. There are also half-dragon/half-human types, who look human except for something lizard-like about the eyes, and who reminded me rather of the aliens-in-disguise in the original version of TV’s V. Now, these dragons, together with a sinister, shadowy human conspiracy called ‘the Black Claw’, threaten France; and so Richelieu reassembles the disbanded ‘The Cardinals’ Blades’ in the national interest. This is a group of brilliant swordspeople, including the heroic Antoine Leprat (‘Tony the Twit’ in English); the half-dragon Saint-Lucq (confusingly, not actually a saint in this tale), Ballardieu (whose name is presumably a SF in-joke by Pevel, modelled on the ‘Clapton is God’ graffiti) amongst others, under the leadership of grizzled old Capitaine La Fargue (‘Captain Fog’ in English). And off they go, on various adventures.

The result is an enormously thigh-slapping, cheering, toasting, roaring, puking, bawling, galloping, adventuring hearty piece of fiction. If it were any heartier, it would actually suffer from inflammatory cardiomegaly. Perhaps I might have liked a little more about the dragons themselves, if only to justify the decision to write the book as Fantasy rather than straight historical melodrama; but the novel instead chooses to focus mostly on Captain Fog's varied crew, and the scrapes they get into. And into scrapes they do get indeed. Scrapes they do get in—they do get themselves scraped-up in … um.

They get into scrapes.

There’s lots and lots of swordfighting, but it's rather more cliché than touché (aha! ha! you see what I did there?). The whole book, in fact, is prodigiously, momentously clichéd; but so energetically, so forcefully does Pevel inhabit these clichés, and with such aplomb, that you don’t mind. It’s all melodrama, all the time; everything is turned up to onze. Moments that would, in another novel, break the tension through sheer ludicrousness (‘“Dead?” Belle-Trogne asked, to put his mind at rest. “Yes. Strangled while he shat.”’, 221) here only endear the reader to the novel. Except for a few bit-parts, the men are all dashing; and except for a few matronly types the women all gorgeous. This latter fact is not unproblematic, incidentally -- by including badass female characters such as the Baroness Agnès de Vaudreuil, Pevel seems to think he is entitled to unload the sort of sexist claptrap that used to be, and I suppose still largely is, a feature of the sub-genre's representation of its female characters. Take for instance this hideous celebration of the male gaze, which reads like a set-up paragraph in a porn tale:
Marciac immediately attracted the notice of four pretty young ladies who were sitting about in casual dress. The first was an ample blonde; the second a slim brunette; the third was a mischievous redhead; and the last was a Jewish beauty with green eyes and dusky skin. The blonde read from a book, while the brunette embroidered and chattered with the other two … he was welcomed with fervent cries of joy.[73]
There's not too much of that sort of thing, though.

Now, the novel originally appeared in France as Les Lamas du Cardinal (2007)—The Cardinal’s Llamas, a title the otherwise competent English translator Tom Clegg has incomprehensibly rendered as The Cardinal’s Blades. Clegg has also excised all actual llamas from the storyline; although look carefully and you can see one in the background of the original Bragelonne cover-art:


Also, characters are constantly getting out their swords and saying ‘en garde!’—an obscure French idiom that Clegg, astonishingly, omits to translate. These small blots aside, I enjoyed 100% Blades a great deal. Good vulgar fun.

15 comments:

Adam Roberts said...

Gosh, wasn't Pa Dumas fat, though?

mckie said...

There's a remarkably similar photograph of GK Chesterton who, like Dumas pere, would have deafened you if he'd fallen on a sheet of tin.

JMBucknall said...

Adam

Uh, the name of the book in French (as the cover readily shows) is Les Lames du Cardinal, which translates to The Cardinal's Blades. Although the thought of llamas in Paris au 17ème siècle adds a certain je ne sais quoi...

Cheers, Julian

Adam Roberts said...

Pardonnez-moi, Julian. J'espère que vous compreniez que je ne parle pas français, pas même un mot seul de cette langue. Ceci explique mon erreur grotesque, je pense. Peut-être vous pourriez traduire l'expression 'en gard' aussi bien?

Chris said...

En garde is a term of art in fencing, so I suppose it has escaped its national origin. If you were translating a novel about the ballet, would you say Pierre and Natasha danced a pas de deux or a step of two?

Chris said...

Or have I just displayed a complete lack of sense of humour...

Adam Roberts said...

Chris: what, more so than Julian?

Not to worry: not everybody gets my sense of humour.

Mihai (Dark Wolf) said...

I enjoyed "The Cardinal's Blades" and it brought me sweet and pleasant memories of my adolescence years of fencing and rescuing of the usual damsel in distress (all in my day dreams obviously). And although I expected the dragons to be more present in Pierre Pevel's novel "The Cardinal's Blades" offered me plenty of fencing moments.
I've seen that you dug a bit in the dacian history and found the wolf head. ;)

Adam Roberts said...

"I've seen that you dug a bit in the dacian history and found the wolf head."

Indeed I did. Why, were you looking for it? Give me a shout and I'll send it over.

Can't go wrong with a bit of Dacian history, I'd say.

Mihai (Dark Wolf) said...

It was a pleasant surprise, Adam :)
I grew up with the dacian history and my old school books have all the wolf head. As I grew I didn't buy many history books regarding our ancient history, but I can always go back to learning years :D You know, the wolf head with its snake body reminded me from some point of Quetzalcoatl. Or maybe that is just me?
P.S. I've seen last year a documentary on a history channel that associated the Dacian wars with the US entry in Iraq. That was a twisted connection...

rreugen said...

And it isn't a dragon at all, I think. If my memories about Romanian/Dacian mythology are correct, the creature is the dacian battle flag, and it's meant to represent one of the two species of romanian lycanthropes. The cool, amazingly powerful, Godsend species.

Adam Roberts said...

Not a dragon? I was hoping it was a llama.

rreugen said...

Llamas entered our ethos much later, after the wolves, chickens, and the self-beheading kinocephals but before christians and communists, therefore they are utterly forgotten.

David Langford said...

Chesterton: somewhere in some Bertie Wooster novel, P.G. Wodehouse described a truly apocalyptic din as -- to quote from memory -- "a sound like G.K. Chesterton falling on to a sheet of tin."

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