Saturday, August 29, 2015

What I'm Reading -- Les Lames du Cardinal

Currently I am reading the Cardinal’s Blades series by Pierre Pevel.  Written originally in French and published as Les Lames du Cardinal, I’m reading an English translation. I’ve finished the eponymous first book, The Cardinal’s Blades. Overall it is good, standard swashbuckling adventure.

The year is 1633 and the Blades have been disbanded for some time. The first book introduces us to the characters individually and then shows us them gathered and reformed. It uses the by now familiar convention of alternating between multiple points of view. The way the action moves and transitions reminds me of an RPG, thus I was not surprised to later learn that Pevel had been an RPG writer. What makes the story unusual is that the protagonists are the Cardinal’s Blades. They work for Cardinal Richelieu to save France. This makes a welcome change from the stereotypical set up where the King’s Musketeers are the heroes and Richelieu is the villain. The only other novel I’ve read that does this turnabout is Stanley J. Weyman’s Under the Red Robe.  If you have not yet read the novel, you should go and do that now. Then watch the movie. This post will still be here when you get back.

An unusual aspect to the series are the fantastic departures that make this a fantasy alt-history/ These consist of sorcery/magic works; dragons are real, as are their various relations: dragonets (tiny dragons with some cat-like behaviors, the novel’s Richelieu has a pet dragonet instead of a cat), wyverns (used for aerial messengers), dracs (humanoid offshoots who fill the role in world for big, strong, aggressive, dumb fighters); and the dragons want to take over the world. They already have great influence in the Court of Spain, setting up the Spanish in a similar confrontational role with the France of the game and they have a sinister organization of supporters.. I like dragons as much as the next guy who enjoys fantasy, but personally I would have enjoyed the story just as well had it included sorcery without the draconic aspects. But the dragons don't really detract from what I do like.

What I find particularly enjoyable is the author’s attention to detail. He includes tons of nuggets of information on the people, places, and events of the period.

  • Denis Charpentier, Richelieu’s real life chief secretary who makes an important appearance in the novel.
  • The Cardinal’s daily routine: in bed before midnight to sleep if his insomnia, migraines, and limb pain allows; arise at 2:00AM to be promptly surrounded by his secretaries; perform his ablutions, eat some broth, then work until 6:00AM. Then perhaps an hour or two of sleep before beginning the challenging part of his day - the rounds of ministers, ambassadors, and courtiers.
  •  Locations for four of the courts of miracles in Paris including, of course, the most famous.
And here’s a bit I had not heard before, but I can easily see using in play:
“Parisian streets had capstans at either end which made it possible to stretch a chain across the roadway—an old mediaeval device designed to obstruct the passage of the rabble in the event of a riot. Those chains, which could not be unwound without a key, were the responsibility of officers of the militia. They were big and solid, too low to stop a rider but high enough o oblige the horse to jump. And in the darkness, they had been turned into a diabolical trap.”

Pevel's protagonists are interesting and well developed as are his villains. I found this description very nicely illustrative, giving me a good feel for the personality of the Marquis de Gagnière.

“As was his habit, the young marquis de Gagnière dined at home, early and alone. An immutable ritual governed even the tiniest details of the meal, from the perfect presentation of the table to the silence imposed on the servants, as they presented a series of dishes prepared b a famous and talented rôtisseur who was accustomed to the tastes of the most demanding of his customers. The crockery laid out on the immaculate linen tablecloth was all made of vermeil, the glasses and decanters were all crystal, the cutlery silver. So luxuriously dressed that he would dazzle at court, Gagnière ate with a fork according to an Italian fashion which had not yet become commonplace in France. H cut small, equal pieces which he chewed slowly, emotionless and stiff, his gaze always directed straight ahead, and pausing between each dish he placed his hands flat to either side of the plate. When he drank he took care to wipe his mouth and moustache in order to avoid dirtying the edge of the glass.”

If you are interested in the period, especially France, this is a series not to pass up.

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