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The Cardinal's Blades by Pierre Pével3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsAnyone who thinks that prancing around in lace and pantaloons swishing a rapier is a sissy way of fighting probably hasn’t had a rapier plunged into his intestines. Fans of the size-matters school of blood and thunder fantasy, fixated on two-handed bastard swords and battleaxes, would do well to reconsider the deadly efficiency of a thin, sleek blade of razor-edged steel relocating your organs from the inside to the outside of your abdominal cavity at speeds faster than the eye can see. Seriously, put on any of the roughly three thousand movie versions of The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo, marvel at the ineluctably badass bladework, then pause to reflect that what you just saw were actors pretending. No, I would not have wanted to be in 17th-century France, going up against a pure professional fencing master with a rapier and a devilish gleam in his eye making it all too clear that his only concern is how quickly he’ll tire of toying with me before delivering the fatal stroke. 

Pierre Pével — so his bio here tells me — is one of France’s most prominent fantasy authors, and The Cardinal’s Blades is his first work translated into English. (The UK release came in 2009, the Pyr US release a year later.) And it’s a wonderful, crisp translation by Tom Clegg, capturing the exhilarating sense of high adventure we have come to expect from any story full of gallant, rapier-wielding Frenchmen. The story’s Dumas influence has already been remarked upon. And it’s apt, especially regarding Pével’s approach to narrative structure and pacing. Dumas’ novels, though long (the unabridged Monte Cristo runs about 1450 pages), were, like most novels of their time, serialized in periodicals, resulting in extremely fast-paced and short individual chapters, all of which ended with a hook to keep readers on tenterhooks for the next installment. The Cardinal’s Blades is, thankfully, a much more digestable 310 pages. But Pével’s chapters, most of which average two to four pages, propel his story in precisely the same way. Blades is sharp and sensational storytelling, whose old-fashioned entertainment value carries it through a plot perhaps a little too complicated for its own good. 

France: 1633. That wily old intriguer Cardinal Richelieu must forever be watchful of those scheming Spaniards. Events have finally reached the point where he must recall to service the titular fighting force. Originally led by the aging yet loyal and energetic Captain Etienne-Louis de La Fargue, the Cardinal’s Blades are both spies and a sort of SEAL team with swords, carrying out numerous perilous secret missions both within France and abroad. But their last mission ended in ignominious betrayal and loss, leading to their disbanding, and La Fargue has been an embittered man ever since. 

Yet ever dutiful, he responds to the Cardinal’s commands and remobilizes his force. These bravos include, among others, womanizing party-boy Marciac, stalwart chevalier Leprat, ruthless half-blood Saint-Lucq, Almades the taciturn Spaniard, and the team’s token femme, Agnés, as deadly at swashing a buckle as anyone. As characters, they probably don’t have a lot in the way of depth when judged by literary standards. But for the purposes of escapism, we learn as much about them as we need to know to have fun with the story, and the secrets many of them keep from each other hint at hidden depths yet to be revealed.

The greatest threat to France comes from the Black Claw, a secret society based in Spain, dedicated to reviving ancient and arcane dragon magic. It’s never really clear exactly what the Black Claw intends to do if they gain a toehold in France, though it’s easy to deduce the usual fantasy-villain agenda items “take over the place” and “launch a reign of terror” are in their playbook. Mostly, this is all a vehicle to show off Pével's darkly imaginative concept of dragons within his alternate history setting. Dragons and their magic are the only fantasy element Pével employs. We learn that they were once far more powerful than they are now, and that at the time of the story, dragons have long since been breeding with humans (we’re thankfully spared the details), resulting in both half-bloods like Saint-Lucq and a race of humanoid “dracs.” Tiny dragonettes are kept as pets while wyverns are ridden through the skies. 

Pével hurls the reader through secrets and lies, confidences and double-crosses, all punctuated by some splendid moments of swordplay that will please readers who like that stuff wet and gory. Sticklers for details like military accuracy will have to be a little forgiving of scenes where characters get off some amazing shots with far greater accuracy than any early 17th-century musket should have been capable of. And navigating Pével’s plot can sometimes be a head-spinning exercise in WTF, as it’s all very easy to lose track of just who’s spying on/secretly working for/otherwise engaging in shenanigans with whom. But I think that’s the idea. This is, after all, a world of rogues and cutthroats, in which the only ally you really can trust at the end of the day is your own sword arm. All for one and one for all is an ideal these characters believe in. If only their actual lives were so simple. 

Followed by The Alchemist in the Shadows.