The Cardinal’s Blades is a work of alternative history set in a vividly realized reimagining of seventeenth century Paris. While many elements of the story and setting stay true to the period, this version of France is no stranger to dark magics and various fantastic, often draconic, beasts. The Cardinal’s Blades is the first book in an ongoing series, also titled The Cardinal’s Blades, by French author Pierre Pével, and was originally published in France in 2007. The first two volumes have since been translated into English with a third due in the not-too-distant future. This review focuses on the English version of the novel, translated by Tom Clegg.
While King Louis XIII may rule in name, the true power in France is Cardinal Richelieu, remembered throughout history for his extensive influence and cunning political manipulations. However, it’s not all fun and games being one of the most powerful and renowned figures of your age. Not only must Richelieu contend with ambitious peers and a nearly constant stream of assassination attempts, but also the threat of war brewing with Spain. All the while, the Black Claw, a notorious sect of dragon descendants, covetously watches France, awaiting an opportunity to establish itself within her borders. In response to this insidious threat, Cardinal Richelieu is compelled to reunite the previously disbanded group of elite spies and swordsmen known colloquially as the Cardinal’s Blades. Unfortunately, the Blades are now scattered across the country, tainted by betrayal and shadowed by loss. They are, however, France’s last defense against the oncoming storm.
Historical Paris with a draconic twist
Pével evokes a vibrant and believable 1633 Paris, from the decadent aristocratic mansions to the stinking, filth covered streets of the city’s slums. Much of the action in the novel takes place within the city walls and Pével frequently makes reference to various distinctive Parisian landmarks. Luckily for those like me who are unfamiliar with the finer details of historical French urban planning, the appendices of the book contain some detailed maps of the city layout to help the reader along. As previously mentioned, one of the key differences between the historical France that we find in the history books and the France depicted in The Cardinal’s Blades is the presence of various dragon-like creatures. While many works of fantasy feature dragons in one form or another, I cannot recall another that contains so many different dragon variations in one novel. Pével’s France is inhabited by many kinds of dragons: cat-sized dragonets that are kept as pets or roam wild throughout the city, flying wyverns that are used as a form of arial transport, humanoid drakes, and half bloods. The most powerful and dangerous dragons, however, are the ancient Ancestral Dragons, whose descendants may move undetected throughout society in human form.
A word that frequently recurs in reference to The Cardinal’s Blades is ‘swashbuckling’ and I must agree that this is a completely accurate description. This is no long, drawn out epic, but in essence an action-adventure novel filled with plenty of vicious sword-fights, daring escapes, and nick-of-time rescues. Pével provides us with ample fight scenes complete with detailed play-by-play combat. While the lightning fast pace of the narrative and constant switching between characters take a little getting used to and may be confusing for some, others will absolutely adore the constant engagement this writing style provides.
The many characters may initially appear to be an extensive collection of character clichés. We have a battle hardened captain; a dashing cad; a good humoured, hard drinking old soldier; a brooding half-breed assassin; a prodigal swordsman; and a strong-willed token female thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, Pével uses these characters well and as the story progresses it becomes evident that, although they may not be the most fleshed out characters in the fantasy genre, they do indeed have more depth than one may initially assume. I also anticipate that more time and energy will be devoted to characterization in later books, especially as much of the history and other background knowledge have already been laid out in this one. The upside of having so many different characters is that almost any reader should be able to find one or more that they can relate to. While I was fond of most of the Blades, my personal favourite would have to be Agnes, the sole woman on the team. Despite the historical setting, I found it refreshing to find an independent, clever, and unconventional woman who can hold her own amid the men in this kind of novel.
Lost in translation?
Now, it’s all perfectly well to convert a popular title into other languages, but if the translation is subpar it doesn’t matter how well written the book originally was or how interesting its premise. Thankfully, Tom Clegg’s translation is pretty solid and, from all accounts, stays as true to the original as possible. However, one does occasionally get the feeling, especially in some of the more quick witted humour scenes, that a little may have been lost in the translation and that the text probably flowed more smoothly in its native language. Generally though, I would say that the benefit of being able to experience works originally written in foreign languages vastly outweighs any trifling complaints one might occasionally have with the translations. The Cardinal’s Blades is no exception.
One aspect of Pével’s writing that may be considered a downside by some and a mark in its favor by others is his seeming infatuation with ending his books on dramatic cliffhangers. While most of the main plot lines are wrapped up neatly enough by the end of the novel, Pével throws in a dramatic revelation right at the end — which is fine if you have the next in the series already on hand, but can be frustrating if you have to wait. If you are a particularly impatient person, I would still recommend The Cardinal’s Blades; however, you may be advised to wait until the series is closer to completion. The overall motives of Black Claw are also left somewhat unclear by the end of the novel. However, I am sure this is not the last we will hear from the malevolent sect.
Why should you read this book?
The Cardinal’s Blades is an extremely colorful, fun and action-packed read that will keep you turning pages. The characters are interesting, the plot is exciting, and the French setting is a nice change from the usual English alternative history fare. This novel also offers a great opportunity to sample some quality translated fantasy, and if the trend to translate popular foreign titles into English continues, we may all get the opportunity to broaden our horizons and experience books and authors we may never otherwise have had access to.