Tuesday, March 2, 2010

history with an odd touch of magic

Niki Bruce reviews The Cardinal’s Blades and is bemused by the addition of dragons.

THIS interesting mix of historical novel and fantasy fiction has been described by one critic as being the "Three Musketeers meets The Dirty Dozen with added dragons", and honestly, that is a great description of Pierre Pevel's latest book, The Cardinal's Blades.

Set in France during the reign of history's notorious Cardinal Richelieu, the book focuses on a group of soldiers who are, literally, the Cardinal's Blades — a kind of proto-CIA who manage political "black ops" in the 17th century.

Led by the taciturn, solid, super-soldier Captain La Fargue, the Blades are group of mavericks who are particularly skilled with their swords, their brains and their tongues. There's the randy ladies' man, the aristocratic female sword master, the giant strong man, a traditional soldier and a morose Spaniard.

The basic plot involves a mysterious missing Spanish heir, who is supposedly running around Paris and who's eminent father has asked the Cardinal for a personal favour to track him down. The Cardinal reunites his Blades and sets them on the trail of the delinquent.

Wrapped around this story are a number of others involving political machinations, more mysterious individuals, spies, prostitutes, money-lenders, criminal gangs and lashings of seemingly accurate historical descriptions of 17th century Paris.

On top of what would have been a fairly satisfying historical novel, is the added menace of the Ancient Dragons — some of whom are now in human form — and all of whom wish to take back power from the humans and rule the world.

The Dragons are mainly based in Spain; Spain is generally France's enemy and the Cardinal is attempting to negotiate some kind of truce so he can deal with his enemies on the other borders.

While the Dragons do add a fantasy dimension; ie. bringing in magic and secret cults, they don't really add that much to the story as a whole.
In fact, Pevel would have been well-served to remove them entirely and simply rely on his existing rich historiosity.

For a start the fantasy vein is not strongly mined — the 'Black Claw' organisation which is the Ancient Dragons' cult could have easily worked as simply a political organisation of people desiring to pull down the current powers that be.

Apart from a couple of scenes of Black Claw members being able to vaguely see into the future and a final ritual scene, the influence of the Dragons’ magic is limited in the plot. These scenes could have been simply made up of historical beliefs in magic and other 'Black Mass' type practices that were prevalent at the time.

Still, the fast pacing, the wise-cracking characters, the twists and turns of a plot influenced by actual historical events and personages, as well as Pevel's great, descriptive turn of phrase makes The Cardinal's Blades a great read.

The Cardinal's Blades by Pierre Pevel is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

First published on The Straits Times blogs on
January 13, 2010


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