The ring of swords. The clash of steel. Action. Adventure. Swashbuckling. Romance.
Even in this modern age, there is a irresistible romance to swordplay, musketeers and the derring-do of a long lost age. Captured by Alexandre Dumas in his 19th century novels, the world of the musketeers has extended into many movie adaptations (and yet more to come). As a seminal influence, the Three Musketeers are one of the principal inspirations for both the sword and sorcery and sword and sandal genres in fantasy and historical fiction.
Similarly, dragons are an extremely popular sub-genre in fantasy today. While dragons have been around in fantasy fiction since the time of Smaug, and the transformed Eustace, and McCaffrey's Pern are replete with them, in the last few years dragons have commonly cropped up both in modern day tales as well as the alternate Napoleonic War novels of Naomi Novik.
The Cardinal's Blades, the English language debut of French author Pierre Pavel, might be thought of as the marriage of these two streams of culture. Grounded in an alternate-history 17th century France, the Cardinal's Blades is the story of the titular characters, a disgraced secret force of Cardinal Richelieu brought back into service for one more mission against France's major adversary--Spain and its Court of Dragons, and more to the point, its secret society trying to operate in France, the Black Claw.
In Pavel's alternate world, while history has mostly gone on as it has in our world (I did catch at least one major change that makes this alternate history, not just our-history-with-dragons), there are dragons of all sizes in society. Dragonets are pets for the rich and powerful (such as the good Cardinal himself). Wyverns, in perhaps a nod to Novik, are used by aviators as couriers. There are half-dragons (matings between transformed dragons and humans) and brutish dracs (humanoid dragon offspring) as well. Actual dragons are rare and devoted to their own inscrutable purposes. For the most part, they are offstage, manipulating the action rather than, say, taking to the skies and raking Paris with gouts of fire.
This is also true of the other fantastic draconic elements I just mentioned. For the most part, the dragonets, and wyverns are only there for color, a splash of fantasy paint on the historical bones of the book. The Cardinal's Blades' focus is directed on the historical sword-and-sandal elements and milieu.
Characterization development, is another disappointment in this novel. Pavel seems to have reserved most of his characterization for the captain of the Cardinal's Blades, La Fargue, and has fallen to stereotypes and somewhat thinner character development for the rest of the cast . The Womanizing rogue, the Serious one, the Woman in a man's world. Once these traits are set, they do not seem to change or grow.
On the bright side, every one of the Cardinal's Blades does get individual attention and screen time, especially when La Fargue gets the band back together, and when the members head out in a Diaspora to accomplish various pieces of the problem of opposing the Black Claw and its plans. The villains are somewhat more well drawn, and as in the case in many of these books, are as interesting as the characters.
A fair criticism of this review might ask--given my criticisms thus far, well what DOES work in this book?
Well, the Historical perspective. As I have said earlier, this is an alternate history. I am not so familiar with French history to be aware of other divergences, but there is one. It is not at all clear that the fantasy elements are responsible for the point of divergence, and it does seem to be again, mostly for color. The writing does effectively convey the backdrop of 17th century France, perhaps more so because I kept mentally filling in memories of various Musketeers movies. What I mean by this is, nothing in the book jarred with those visions, helping to establish an effective mise-en-scene for the events of the novel.
The swashbuckling action and adventure, too, is one of the best reasons to read this book. Action and adventure this novel has in plenty and Pavel seems to be at his best and most effective as a writer when things get interesting. To the point, there are very effective "set-piece" encounters and battles that are exciting, well written, and helped draw me through the book. For all of the weaknesses mentioned above, Pavel knows how to write effective, engaging and exciting encounters between the protagonists and their foes.
Another thing that works is the complexity of the plot. It's not too convoluted, but things are not quite as they seem, and the motivations of the bigger players on the board are suitably complex and multisided. There is a lot going on in Pavel's world, much more than meets the eye, and there plenty of material here that future volumes in this world could explore.
So, while I don't think that Pavel's The Cardinal's Blades is an heir to, say, Brust's The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years Later, I think it is good enough that I would read a sequel, especially given the twist ending that begs for explanation in a future volume. I hope that forthcoming books will keep Pavel's strengths and shore up some of the weaknesses and would love to see what he does, given an opportunity to grow into this universe.