_The White Company_ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is equal parts boy’s own adventure and historical fiction of the Hundred Years’ War. It reminded me very...more_The White Company_ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is equal parts boy’s own adventure and historical fiction of the Hundred Years’ War. It reminded me very much of the spirit of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, though it’s been so long since I read the latter story I wouldn’t want to draw too many specific comparisons. The story is that of a young aristocrat, Alleyne Edricson, who leaves the safe confines of the abbey where he was raised in order to see the world for a year before deciding on the path his life is to follow. From the first Doyle fills his tale with action that is tempered with descriptive passages detailing the varied aspects of medieval life of England and France in the fourteenth century. One gets a detailed sense of a world in which the habitations of man were widely interspersed amongst the ever present wilderness with areas of cultivation spread between.
The story Doyle tells straddles a strange line, for while there are parts that read like an idyllic paen to the simpler and purer days of yore, he does not shy away from presenting hard truths regarding the savagery, poverty, and tyranny that were also pervasive at the time. One is often left wondering whether Doyle wanted to praise or berate the era, to simplify it or acknowledge its complexities, but perhaps he simply felt that, like any other age, there was equal measure of both praise and blame to be given to it. Alleyne’s relative innocence and inexperience with the world outside of abbey walls allows him to be an excellent stand-in for the reader, as he experiences for the first time the realities of the wider medieval world. As though immersed in a kind of Canterbury Tales Alleyne meets pardoners, friars, palmers, hucksters, knights, peasants, franklins and soldiers allowing the reader to experience a veritable cross-section of medieval society in all of its varied glory. Sometimes this can come across as a bit too pat, as Doyle manages to have Alleyne cross paths with nearly every segment of medieval society on his journeys along the highways and byways of England and France.
The characters of Alleyne, with his wide-eyed innocence, and Sir Nigel Loring, with his almost simplistically quixotic belief in the tenets of chivalry, give Doyle the chance to indulge in elements of chivalric romance, while the more hard-bitten archer Samkin Aylward and his less idealistic comrades in the White Company allow for a more pragmatic look at medieval warfare to be examined. Still, for all of the historical detail that Conan Doyle may have laden his story with, it definitely seems to come down on the side of idealistic chivalry; for despite its acknowledgment of the unending warfare with the goal of plunder that turned half of France into a wasted no-man’s land, sly allusions to the inherent naiveté of many of the ideals of chivalry through the literally and figuratively myopic Sir Nigel, and various references to the downtrodden peasantry (including a scene in which a tyrannical seigneur’s castle is attacked and destroyed by a starving peasant mob) the novel still often reads like the Middle Ages as produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
It was still an enjoyable read and further goes to show me Conan Doyle’s range as a writer. (less)
Amongst the sinks and dens of the Paris backstreets a mysterious figure lurks. The criminals whisper in hushed tones. There is a dar...moreOur story so far….
Amongst the sinks and dens of the Paris backstreets a mysterious figure lurks. The criminals whisper in hushed tones. There is a dark avenger on the streets. Even the great amongst the fallen are subject to his heavy hand and rough justice. Those who see the errors of their ways, those who are victims dragged down to the gutter and yet still retain their hope, those who have not given up on their fellow man, these may see the fair face of mercy and be given a new chance at life, but those who remain immured in their sin, wallowing in their own filth and degrading those around them, these will feel the iron hand and swift justice of the avenger.
In public he is Rodolph, Grand Duke of Gerolstein in Paris for the purposes of amusement and the fulfillment of his diplomatic obligations. In reality he is a man haunted by his own past and convinced of his mission of atonement: to punish the wicked as the very hand of God and equally to reward the just who are oppressed. His enemies are legion, yet his allies are also numerous: the noble Sir William Murphy, mentor, right-hand man and courageous bodyguard, David the former slave from the Americas and now medical doctor and aide to the Grand Duke’s plans, Madame Georges the keeper of sanctuary and victim of a tragic past. Thrill as Rodolph faces le Chourineur and must either awaken his better nature or fell this giant with his fists! Cheer as Rodolph rescues the beautiful la Goualeuse, a prostitute with a heart of gold! Gasp as Rodolph metes out rough justice to the frightful and deformed master villain the Schoolmaster! Be confounded as we hear the debased story of the Schoolmaster’s twisted one-eyed lover la Chouette! But wait! Our hero’s adventures have only begun. How will he weather the storm when his haunted past meets his dangerous present? Shrink as we hear of the depravity of the duplicitous Doctor César Polidori! Gasp at the audacity of the venal Sarah Seyton of Halsbury and her brother Thomas! Wonder at the mysterious sorrow of the beautiful Marquise d'Harville! What lies in store for Rodolph’s uncertain future?
Yup, that’s really not much of an overstatement of this book so far. Eugene Sue, a former physician and sailor, took up the pen at the same time as Dumas, Stendhal, Balzac and Hugo. Unlike these eminent confrères he is largely forgotten today, though in his own day he was enormously popular and _The Mysteries of Paris_ has apparently even been given some credit in laying the groundwork for the 1848 revolution (this fact comes from wikipedia, so I cannot speak to its veracity). It’s a great potboiler of a tale, reminiscent in some ways of elements of Dumas (esp. some aspects of The Count of Monte Cristo) and I imagine it may have been an influence on later writers who created such figures as Batman, the Shadow, and Doc Savage…though there are obvious differences. The justice Rodolph dispenses is definitely a very harsh one when viewed with modern eyes, and while it is likely to come across as little more than revenge it appears that Sue actually considered it a valid way in which to encourage repentance and rehabilitation (no spoilers!)The novel even spawned its own genre: the “City Mystery”, a species of crime fiction which depicted the seedy underbellies of great cities and was continued by such writers as George W. M. Reynolds, Émile Zola, Paul Féval, and others.
It’s very pulpy and very fun and it’s interesting to see the roots of some of the elements of later genres at their birth. If you like 19th century serial fiction this is a good bet. There are a few unfortunate examples of info-dump chapters that come across (or did to me) as a bit heavy-handed in technique, and one bizarre example of Sue spoilering a mystery with an authorial aside that seemed completely unnecessary to me. I’m reading the series in a six volume set and while I am not planning to continue immediately I do look forward to following the further adventures of Rodolph in the streets of Paris.
Stay tuned! Same bat-time! Same bat-channel! (less)
_Casanova’s Alibi & Other Stories_ is an enjoyable collection of shortish tales from the master of swashbucklers who gave us Scaramouche and Capta...more_Casanova’s Alibi & Other Stories_ is an enjoyable collection of shortish tales from the master of swashbucklers who gave us Scaramouche and Captain Blood. Drawing from what is perhaps the most rich vein he could find for his métier in history we follow that arch-scoundrel and Prince of Adventurers himself, Giacomo Casanova. The nine tales collected herein follow Casanova from his earliest transgressions in Venice to the somewhat more seasoned (though no less audacious) exploits of his later years.
We see Casanova pulling the wool over the eyes of various dupes, whether it be as an aggrieved brother, an ostensible alchemist or spirit medium, or the apparent champion of a slighted dancer. As is to be expected he is always looking for the angle; the best way in which to advance his position or get some cash (though he would never, of course, be so gauche as to put it that way). Sabatini walks a nice line with his character: on the one hand he obviously admires his audacity and plethora of talents, on the other he is quick to use his narrative intrusions to regretfully point out some of the moral failings of his hero (with the occasional stance of disbelief that such calumny as is reported of him could really be true). In connection with this I also found it surprising (or perhaps given the era in which these stories were written “intriguing” would be the correct word) that there is nary a reference to Casanova’s preeminent role as debaucher and deflowerer of young women. Aside from a casual reference to “intrigues” or the fact that “a handsome face in either a man or woman was ever an irresistible recommendation to Casanova” little enough is said about it until the very last story in the collection. Even here, in “Casanova in Madrid”, we see the relationship we might expect reversed and it is Casanova who falls for the mysterious woman he only glimpses from his window and on whose account much trouble ensues (though Sabatini does admit that his hero is something of a “hard-bitten, flamboyant adventurer of ripe experience and jaded appetites” with an “excessive appetite for philandering”).
While Casanova is certainly an active hero, and a man inordinately aware of his own self-professed honour, he’s no D’Artagnan willing to face down a half dozen swordsmen in the name of it. He is much more calculating than that and will cut-and-run when he has to. He’s a smart gamester and knows that his reputation can be restored later, but his life can’t be regained once it’s lost. His sardonic wit also shares a lot with his scribe’s equally famous creation Scaramouche. You can tell, by reading about either of these characters from the pen of Sabatini, that he got a real kick out of portraying their clever wit. Indeed, it is generally Casanova’s tongue and not his sword that is sharpest and against which his opponents would be wise to take guard.
To the best of my knowledge (a reading some years ago of the abridged The Story of My Life) all of the tales in this volume are based on reality (at least reality as it was reported by Casanova himself) and it really does show what an amazing character this man was. Even if Sabatini is simply taking the bones of a “true” event and fabricating his own story and character around it, the bones are pretty amazing and unbelievable in themselves. Sabatini does a good job with nearly all of these tales and the collection is well-worth reading, though I have to admit that he does not reach the heights achieved by Scaramouche. (less)
At Waterloo, although, in a sense, I was present, I was unable to fight, and the enemy was victorious. It is not for me to say that there is a connection between these two things. You know me too well, my friends, to imagine that I would make such a claim. But it gives matter for thought, and some have drawn flattering conclusions from it.
Thus does our old friend Etienne Gerard begin his penultimate tale of adventure, reminiscing convivially about that horrible day at Waterloo. His characteristic reserve and modesty are obviously on full display, for is not humility one of the greatest traits of this very great man? Not on your life…and we wouldn’t have it any other way. I was once again struck by the ways in which Gerard is so similar in character to Harry Paget Flashman, and yet also so diametrically opposed to him. Where Flashy blunders treacherously from misadventure to misadventure in a cowardly attempt to escape danger while still managing to cover himself in glory and praise, Gerard nobly blunders from misadventure to misadventure in a valiant attempt to singlehandedly win every battle in the Napoleonic wars and manages to escape with his life despite his foolhardiness and obtuseness. Some glory adheres to him, but it’s unclear how much is truly universal in its acclaim and how much is only in his own mind. Of course, there’s usually a woman involved as well. And she is always smitten to the core by our brave and dashing hussar. Who wouldn’t be?
Conan Doyle certainly seems to have had a knack for creating memorable, even great, characters. Sherlock Holmes is of course an icon, a literary giant that has stood the test of time. I hope that Gerard does as well, for while he is certainly less well-known than his consulting detective confrere, he is no less intriguing a character. As with Holmes it is due mostly to his faults that Gerard ought to win a place in your hearts and minds. A bigger braggart and narcissist could little be imagined (Harry Paget Flashman notwithstanding), and yet he is a lovable egoist for all of that. Gerard’s heart is always in the right place and if he happens to believe that everyone (even his enemies) truly love him, is he really, perhaps, all that wrong? He is, certainly, an eminently likable old fellow.
This is sadly the last volume of Gerard’s adventures and it runs the gamut of chivalrous exploits undertaken in the name of a lady, to affairs of honour (in the name of a lady), and let’s not forget the martial exploits in the name of the Emperor which of course override all other concerns (though sometimes a lady *is* involved). It’s a pleasure to listen as the Brigadier recalls his days of glory and for all of their inherent humour (usually indiscernable to Gerard) there is also some pathos evoked by them, for it is apparent that this jovial old grognard living on half-pay and memories alone has nothing else save the planting of cabbages with which to while away his final days, for he remained loyal to his beloved emperor and his own prospects and standing faded away as the star of Napoleon itself dimmed and disappeared. This last was certainly not without some attempts by Gerard to undo the wrong done to his master, but that’s a tale you will have to hear for yourself. I urge you to do so, the Brigadier is always a genial companion. Ah, by the bye you don’t mind springing for a bottle of burgundy, do you? There’s a good fellow.
This is my favourite of Perez-Reverte's books that I've read thus far. The stoic fencing maestro Jaime Astarloa is living out his remaining days of qu...moreThis is my favourite of Perez-Reverte's books that I've read thus far. The stoic fencing maestro Jaime Astarloa is living out his remaining days of quiet desperation with a philosophical stiff upper lip as he watches the way of life he has devoted himself to fade into unlamented obscurity. Don Jaime spends his days teaching bratty aristocrats the art of the sword, an art they appear to no longer need or care about, and marking time with his few acquaintances in the Cafe Progresso; a sad group of older men watching their decline in disbelief, each a victim of their own inability to make anything meaningful of their lives.
Into this quiet decline comes the unexpected appearance of a beautiful and mysterious woman, Adela de Otero, a veritable whirlwind of transformation whose request to learn from him the deadly "two hundred escudo thrust" plunges the hapless fencing master into a world of danger and intrigue quite at variance with his expectations for his sunset years, though not, perhaps, wholly against his secret wishes.
The political turmoil and colour of 19th century Madrid is brought to vivid life by Perez-Reverte and Don Jaime's position as a virtual outsider within his own society make him an excellent viewpoint character for the reader. The poignant decline of Don Jaime, along with his perseverence despite the obstacles put before him, make him sympathetic despite his relatively cool nature. I really enjoyed reading this book and come back to it often to simply soak in the atmosphere so effectively created by Perez-Reverte.
April 2012 re-read: Still love it. Don Jaime is a great character and Adela de Otero is almost worthy to be classed with Milady de Winter. Awesome sense of time and place as well and all wrapped up in a fairly unconventional swashbuckler.
Balsamo is back and, after a hiatus of 10 years and the adoption of a new identity (le Comte de Cagliostro), he is ready to begin anew hi...more3.5 - 4 stars
Balsamo is back and, after a hiatus of 10 years and the adoption of a new identity (le Comte de Cagliostro), he is ready to begin anew his efforts at bringing down the throne of France. The action centres around Marie Antoinette (painted quite positively by Dumas) and the infamous affair of the diamond necklace. This tangled intrigue revolves around the fabulous necklace, worth 1.5 million francs according to Dumas, and the varied attempts by different intriguers to ensure that the queen was presented with it as a sign of love. The court, apparently already suffering under the dual weight of an embarrassing lack of funds and rumours of the queen's infidelity spread by her many enemies, can little withstand a blow in both quarters. From here Dumas weaves various threads and intrigues with his usual aplomb as his varied cast of characters are drawn inexoribly towards their ultimate ends.
Dumas seems to have had a things for cardinals, queens and romantic cavaliers...though in this volume they are handled very differently than in some of the other places we've seen them used. We again see our old friends the Taverneys (the wonderfully venal old Baron de Taverney, the angelic and somewhat stiff Andrée, and the heroically romantic Philippe) and a short introduction reintroduces the charmingly dissolute Duke de Richelieu (sadly underutilized in this book). Added to the cast are the impoverished and ambitious adventuress the Countess de la Motte Valois, the lovestruck and somewhat befuddled Cardinal de Rohan, and the also heroically romantic Count de Charny (soon to be rival of our old friend Philippe). The last, and perhaps most important character (at least to the intrigues Dumas developes) is Olivia (formerly Nicole when she was the servant of the Taverneys and lover of Gilbert) who bears a striking resemblance to the queen. Got that straight? Good.
It's great to see Dumas once again in full command of his intricate plot and never really losing any of the strings. The characters are well-drawn and the action fast-paced as always. While not anywhere near the perfection of The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers this is an enjoyable read and I truly enjoyed being able to feel for characters on both sides of the plot. Marie Antoinette is quite positively painted (as is Louis XVI whose only great flaw seems to be a lack of backbone) and yet Dumas allows us to see glimpses of her weakness, pride and selfishness that will utlimately lead to her downfall. The Cardinal could have been painted as a pure villain, or complete dupe, but manages to be sympathetic and seen as a victim of circumstances beyond his control. The Countess de la Motte is probably the most one-note character and doesn't manage to approach the sublime heights of villainy and attraction of Milady, but she fulfills her role.
All in all a very fun read that sets things up for the inevitable fall to come. Recommended for fans of Dumas.(less)
2.5 – 3 stars Rupert of Hentzau is an enjoyable swashbuckler, though I remember The Prisoner of Zenda being better. We rejoin the major players remaini...more2.5 – 3 stars Rupert of Hentzau is an enjoyable swashbuckler, though I remember The Prisoner of Zenda being better. We rejoin the major players remaining from the first novel three years later when a new crisis threatens the queen’s honour (she’s not very bright, alas) and the dastardly rogue Rupert of Hentzau gets his hands on a letter written by her majesty to her former lover Rudolph Rassendyll. Of course Rudolph must speed to her rescue and once again take up his imposture of the King of Ruritania while that somewhat feckless cuckold is still on the throne and not, this time, safely tucked away in a prison.
There were a few twists in the plot that I didn’t quite expect, though in retrospect I probably should have. As I said, overall an enjoyable romp, but it had a few things I took issue with: 1) most of the convenient elements of the plot that occurred to increase tension were mainly due to the general stupidity of the heroes; I mean, there were times when even *they* knew what they should have done and they didn’t do it anyway. 2) The majority of the characters are pills. The queen, as stated, is really not very bright and her constant swooning over events (and Rudolph) got a little tiresome, I really don’t see why any of the men who were so devoted to her would have wasted their time given her personality. The ostensible narrator, Fritz von Tarlenheim, is almost as stupid, though not quite. Rassendyll, the ostensible hero of the piece, is a cipher, or more correctly an acquisition straight out of central casting for “stiff-necked noble hero”. The only really interesting characters were, obviously, the villain of the piece Rupert of Hentzau, of whom there was far too little in the text even though his name is on the title, and good old pragmatic Colonel Sapt, apparently the only one of the heroes with a working brain in his head and of whom there was just enough.
Alright, all of that sounds so critical that you may be wondering how I could give this anything more than a rating of 2. Well, I am willing to give this one some leeway given the era in which it was written and the fact that it was merely going along with the expectations of the day. Also, it’s a classic in the genre, so that bumps it up a bit too. Add to that the fact that Hope’s prose is well-wrought and the fact that I didn’t see the final twist in the plot until just before it occurred (though I really should have)and I think the rating just about squeaks in at 2.5-3 stars. This was another librivox recording and I was again lucky with the narrator, Andy Minter did a great job of it. All in all a fun swashbuckler. (less)
I wavered between four and five stars on this one, but I totally have to go with the five. It’s just that awesome. I was actually a little surprised a...moreI wavered between four and five stars on this one, but I totally have to go with the five. It’s just that awesome. I was actually a little surprised at how much I loved this book. I mean, I love swashbucklers and historical fiction…Dumas père is my man, but the only other Sabatini novel I’ve read, Venetian Masque, I found to be a little underwhelming so I did not expect this from Sabatini. Speaking of Dumas, I almost think that _Scaramouche_ can be placed in the same company as that master’s great work _The Count of Monte Cristo_, no small praise from me. It doesn’t quite have the same level of intricate plotting as the latter, and I will never give pride of place to any but Monsieur le Comte, but it is still an awesome read filled with exciting ups and downs as we follow the trials and triumphs of the title character aka Andre-Louis Moreau. I actually noticed that Moreau shared some similarities with Dantès as a character, at least in the fact that both of them seemed to have a Batman-like ability to adopt nearly any skill they required to further their own ends. For Moreau this leads him to start out as a lawyer with exceptional reasoning and speaking skills, become a brilliant actor, stage writer and theatre impresario, then move on to master the art of the sword and become a maître d'armes, and finally to enter the realm of politics all within a span of two years. That’s ok, I don’t mind it if my heroes are super and Moreau pairs his ability with an acerbic wit and keen insight I found both refreshing and awesome.
I have to add here that I ‘read’ this as an audiobook downloaded from Librivox. Now the narrators from Librivox, given that it is a free site, can be…how to put this delicately? Crappy. Not so this one. The narrator Gordon Mackenzie was fantastic. He had just the right pacing, didn’t stumble on his words (you’d think that would be a prerequisite for narrating an audio book, wouldn’t you?), and was able to voice each character differently without sounding completely ludicrous. He even managed the French phrases and Latin epigrams with no apparent effort. Excellent job Mr. Mackenzie! I really think his work on this added to my already superlative enjoyment of the text itself.
Given that this is a classic I imagine that many already know the plot, at least in broad strokes: Andre-Louis Moreau is a bastard of no name, taken in as the “godson” of the local seigneur of the village of Gavrillac (amidst the knowing glances and whispers of the locals). He is a young man of intelligence and wit, known primarily for his acerbic tongue and incisive reasoning, who acts as the legal representative of his godfather, M. de Kercadiou. His best friend, Philippe de Vilmorin, is a young seminarian who also happens to have revolutionary political leanings. When a local peasant is summarily killed by a local noble, the Marquis de la Tour d'Azyr, Philippe tries to convince the nobleman to recompense the dead man’s family for the deed. Incensed, and sensing in the eloquent young man one who could stir the mounting discontent of the people that is beginning to raise its head in France, d’Azyr decides he must get rid of this possible thorn in the side of his class. An expert fencer, perhaps the best in France, d’Azyr forces the fledgling Philippe into challenging him to a duel and handily dispatches the young man, whose own abilities with the sword are non-existent. It is this act of bald-faced murder (and the subsequent inability of the young lawyer to gain any justice from the established powers) that sends young Bruce Wayne, er Andre-Louis, on his road of vengeance against the man, and the class, that killed his friend in cold blood.
As we follow Andre-Louis in his quest we see him taking up the mantle left by his dead friend and using his own eloquence to stir up the crowds against their unjust masters. Forced into hiding when his name and actions become know, Moreau manages to join a travelling band of actors who mount plays based on the fading style of the Commedia dell'Arte and, after establishing himself as not only an excellent actor and writer, but even a company manager of some skill Moreau takes on the role of Scaramouche (one that is uniquely suited to his outlook and abilities) and proceeds to lead the troupe to the verge of fame and fortune. Along the way he falls in love and ultimately finds himself once again crossing paths with his avowed enemy, seemingly driven by the hand of fate. Moreau encounters numerous dangers and escapes in his years of hiding which I won’t recount here…read the book and enjoy them to the full yourself! Suffice it to say that the nascent revolution turns the tables and thrusts Andre-Louis into a position of power. It is a position that is not so easily taken advantage of, despite Andre-Louis’ apparent single-mindedness in regards to his quest, and the conclusion of the tale is satisfying and much more complex than one might be given to expect from a work in this genre.
I thought Sabatini’s prose was great. His turns of phrase, especially in the mouth of Moreau, were sublime and the text is littered with an abundance of bon mots. His characters also shine and often manage to attain a level of complexity that goes beyond the one dimensional duality of good-guy/bad-guy one might expect. While I was always cheering for Moreau and loved his character, he is not always an eminently likeable guy and even the sneering and vain arch-rival the Marquis de la Tour d'Azyr manages to show himself to be something more complex than a mustachio-twirling villain. Bottom line: this book was great. I don’t know why I took so long to read it, but I’m very glad I finally did. I’ll be revisiting this one many times in the future.
_Star Well_ by Alexei Panshin is an entertaining comedy of manners in the SF mode with a hint of the demimonde thrown in for flavour. Our protagonist...more_Star Well_ by Alexei Panshin is an entertaining comedy of manners in the SF mode with a hint of the demimonde thrown in for flavour. Our protagonist is Anthony Villiers, Viscount Charteris, an aristocrat and fop whose life seems to be a perpetual Grand Tour of the Nashuite Empire, chasing the stipend afforded him by his father from port to port and resorting to what might, in impolite circles, be considered illicit means to gain funds when he is unable to catch up with it. He is no career criminal or grifter, though, and is content rather to live a life of comfort and fashion without sullying his hands with anything so low as labour or outright criminality. He is, in a word, a gentleman.
His travelling companion is the enigmatic Torve the Trog, a giant befurred frog who seems equal parts Yoda and Chewbacca. Torve is generally a rather stoic companion, at least in this volume, and is content merely to evade customs officials anxious to restrict Trog travel, sit cross-legged in the Palatine Suite composing indecipherable poetry seemingly based upon the single word “Thurb”, and utter gnomic phrases repudiating causality to Anthony whenever confronted by the latter’s concerns or problems: “No, you have very strange mind. I do not understand. But is no mattering: favourable line of occurrence and friendship travel together. I like you – means nothing to me.” He is rather a charming fellow.
Star Well is a space port tunnelled into an asteroid which resides in the Flammarion Drift, an empty reach of space “where the stars don’t grow” and which is known primarily for some gambling, a little shopping, and an otherwise complete lack of interest. It is thus generally used as little more than a stopover by travellers on their way to somewhere else. This suits its owners and operators fine, since it is, of course, also the home of illegal smuggling and other illicit activities. We follow Anthony as he becomes embroiled in these activities, quite by accident of course, and meets such varied characters as Godwin the deadly enforcer of low birth and aristocratic yearnings (a man who, if it can be believed, has an even more accomplished toilet than that of Villiers…though of course it is somewhat vulgar in its ostentation); Godwin’s boss the cow-towing Hisan Bashir Shirabi who might make a formidable criminal if only he could overcome his awe of his betters; a corpulent and red robed priest of Mithras who may be more than he appears; and the charming and capable Louisa Parini, a fifteen year old girl of shadowy parentage en route to a finishing school for girls which she would most heartily like to avoid.
There is another character even more prevalent in the tale, the narrator, whose asides and commentary make up most of the ‘mannerism’ of the tale. I generally don’t mind an intrusive narrator like this (in fact I quite love it when done with panache, as in Dumas), and usually such a tale demands one, but I think Panshin needed a slightly lighter touch with him than was on display here. Some of the bon mots were a little too strained and it would have been nice to see a few more in the mouth of Villiers himself, though he does get a few of his own.
All in all this was an enjoyable tale and if you like the comedy of manners mode and light sci-fi then you will likely enjoy this. Despite its slight beginnings the story ends in a satisfactory manner and leaves open some room for the development of Villiers and his adventures to something more substantial. Two volumes follow (a fourth, concluding volume, was never produced due to disputes between Panshin and his publishers).
What do you get if you take Flashman, remove the streak of yellow from his back and make at least some of the adventures ones entered into knowingly b...moreWhat do you get if you take Flashman, remove the streak of yellow from his back and make at least some of the adventures ones entered into knowingly by the participant? Why, you get Brigadier Etienne Gerard, of course! Gerard is a creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, sadly languishing in the shadows with all of his other characters not called "Sherlock Holmes". He is a dashing hussar in Napoleon's Grande Armée who, in his old age, is recalling to the reader the adventures of his youth. The comparison to Flashman is an instructive one, especially in that while Flashman is committed to strictly telling the truth he ultimately becomes more and more a bounder and cad in our eyes, while Gerard (well I certainly won’t call him a liar, but let’s just say he has a spotty memory at best and isn’t the most observant fellow) is a somewhat less than objective reporter, and yet each tale shows him to be a goodhearted man of high ideals.
These are tales filled with derring-do, close escapes and not a few romantic entanglements...I think I see where George MacDonald Fraser got at least part of his inspiration from. Gerard is a very likeable character and narrator for all that he is so full of himself that it's a wonder the hot air doesn't make him float away. His voice is urbane and charming and all of his adventures are rousing good tales. At the beginning of each adventure one almost sees the sunlit café table at which we sit and can almost taste the cognac in our coffee as we listen to the Brigadier reminisce. He really is a charming old campaigner, though not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. Still, for loyalty and sheer bravado one could do worse than having a Brigadier Gerard in one’s army, for while he “has the thickest head he has also the stoutest heart” of all of Napoleon’s men.
I was actually a bit surprised at the very real violence and horror of war hinted at occasionally in these stories. Despite being adventure stories of the Victorian era they don't necessarily shy away from some of the less palatable aspects of their subject matter, even if Gerard tells of them with a very wry nonchalance. I was, for example, a bit surprised by the horrific death of one of Gerard's soldiers, buried alive, as related to him by a bandit chieftain, or the recounting by Gerard of a military tribunal of French POWs who punish a traitor in their midst such that "In the morning, when [the English] came for their man with papers for his release, there was not as much of him left as you could put upon your thumb-nail."
When I started this book in tandem with Doyle’s _The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes_ I was asked which I liked better. I had immediately given the nod to Sherlock Holmes, if only for his iconic and fascinating character, but now I’m not so sure. Holmes is great, but Gerard is very charming indeed and there is not a dud amongst his tales. Doyle has really impressed me with his range in these two creations alone and I look forward to the further adventures of both characters, not to mention a look at some of Doyle’s other fiction. I highly recommend the Gerard stories to anyone interested in historical fiction and adventure, especially when it is tinged with good humour.
I read this story in two volumes: the Collier editions of _Joseph Balsamo_ and _Memoirs of a Physician_ (which are great translations). I will admit f...moreI read this story in two volumes: the Collier editions of _Joseph Balsamo_ and _Memoirs of a Physician_ (which are great translations). I will admit first of all that the first time I attempted to read these I didn't get very far into the book before abandoning it. I think this was due mostly to my expectations, since this story is not really a swashbuckling adventure tale (though it has its share of intrigue) and I was expecting something more like _The Three Musketeers_. I'm glad that I gave the story a second chance though because, for all its differences from his better known tales, it's still classic Dumas.
We start with a suitably moody scene as a mysterious figure enters a secret chamber hidden in the mountains near the Rhine in the midst of a night time storm only to be confronted by the representatives of the secret order of the Illuminati who wish to overthrow the corrupt political regimes of the day. From here things move apace and we discover that the figure we have met is the elusive Joseph Balsamo (later know more famously as the adventurer and supposed immortal Count Cagliostro). Balsamo is entrusted with the leadership of his sect and given the commission to further the fall of the French monarchy.
The story then shifts to another locale: the estate of the impoverished aristoractic Tavernay family. The father, the Baron de Tavernay, is a crusty old man, barely living at a subsistence level despite his title and estate and when not railing at the circumstances of the present, he is living on his memories of the glorious past. Here we also meet one of Dumas' most interesting, and frustrating, characters: Gilbert, a servant boy raised by the Tavernays. Gilbert is a model figure of his times: a boy born to low estate, but with a quick mind and who has read just enough Rousseau and Voltaire to have a rather large chip on his shoulder. Gilbert constantly rails at the injustice of fate that has set foolish aristocrats above himself simply through the chance of birth, and hungers for the fall of this unjust regime. Warring with this inborn dislike of the people who raised him (albeit with little enough care for his welfare) is his nearly all-consuming passion for the apple of the Baron de Tavernay's eye, his daughter Andree.
Of course Andree barely knows that Gilbert exists and so his days are spent in a constant froth, sometimes railing against the injustice of his station, and at others at the injustice of his unrequited love. Into the midst of this little domestic purgatory comes Balsamo, a dashing figure to all who not only promptly informs the horrified Baron that he will soon be visited by the dauphin's fiance who is on her way to Paris (the ill-starred Marie Antoinette), but then mysteriously produces all that the impoverished family needs to impress this great personage apparently out of thin air.
From here a third major thread joins the tale as we begin to be told of the political intrigues of court and see the characters of Marie Antoinette, her somewhat feckless fiance (the future Louis XVI) who lives constantly under the thumb of his domineering grandfather, Louis XV. Added to this power family are the courtiers, most notably Louis XV's mistress Madame du Barry and the old and wily Duke de Richelieu, who are constantly manoeuvering for position at court and who draw into their schemes the hapless Gilbert and innocent Andree, and who in turn are drawn into the wider schemes of Balsamo.
This description barely scratches the surface of what is going on in the tale and doesn't even touch on other interesting elements such as Andree's heroic brother Philippe, the Tavernay's servant girl Nicole (the former lover of Gilbert who also happens to be the spitting image of Marie Antoinette), and a very amusing portrait of the hen-pecked philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who befriends Gilbert as the latter journeys to Paris. Dumas uses his consummate skill to bring together the varied strands of his plot and show us how all of these characters will be brought together in order to further the plans of the master manipulator (and mesmeric magician) Balsamo.
The only real stumbling block I had, and the thing that put me off the most during my first attempt at the story, were the scenes involving Louis XV and his court. While some elements of this were interesting (namely the intrigues of Madame du Barry as she attempts to get an official presentation at court) others left me somewhat cold as we seemed to follow the foppish king and his meaningless diversions a bit too much. I see what Dumas was doing here: presenting us with a detailed picture of the inherent moral bankruptcy of the French monarchy at the time and priming us with the roots of its ultimate downfall, but one scene of kingly decadence is often much like another and began to get a bit tedious in the end. That said it's still a great story and I recommend it to any hard core fan of Dumas. The character of Gilbert is worth the price of admission and even though he is at times, as I mentioned, a very frustrating, even infuriating, character I think in many ways he is a fascinating one as well.(less)
_The Companions of Jehu_ is another excellent lesser known Dumas work. Loosely part of a trilogy that covers the Napoleonic wars (the oth...more3 - 3.5 stars
_The Companions of Jehu_ is another excellent lesser known Dumas work. Loosely part of a trilogy that covers the Napoleonic wars (the others being _The Whites & the Blues_ and the recently unearthed _The Last Cavalier_) this book stands alone very well. The story starts at a wayside inn where we are introduced to two of our main characters, told of a recent highway robbery, and a duel is promptly proposed. From here the pace of the book rarely slackens.
One of the most interesting aspects of this story is that there is no actual villain. We have the allies of Napoleon on one side (represented audaciously by the protagonist Roland, aka Louis de Montreval) and the royalists on the other side (with their swashbuckling hero Morgan, aka the Baron Charles de Sainte-Hermine...our heroes seem to like noms de guerre in this book), but neither is presented as the “right side”. They both display honour and nobility in equal measure, despite the fact that they are on opposing political sides. Added to these two main characters are Sir John, a travelling Englishman who befriends Roland and promptly falls in love with his sister Amelie (who is herself the secret lover of the royalist Morgan), Roland’s family, the stalwart royalist guerilla leader Georges Cadoudal, and Napoleon himself, Roland’s friend and mentor and here returning from the Egyptian campaign to become First Consul, his first step on the road to empire.
Roland is a melancholy figure, victim to an “ailment” that is only alluded to, but not that hard to suss out, which prompts him to live dangerously and seek a glorious death wherever he can (a death which constantly eludes him, much to his chagrin). Morgan is a consummate gentleman, noble to a fault, who goes so far as to issue an order to his secret society of Royalist highwaymen (the titular Companions of Jehu) that they are to consider the person of Roland sacrosanct since he is the brother of Morgan’s lover. The character of Napoleon is great, by turns noble, capricious and brilliant it’s clear that Dumas enjoyed writing him as a protagonist in the novel. Amelie is a bit of a wet blanket, having little to do but be a tragic heroine and lover to the enemy of her brother.
The story has the usual twists and turns one comes to expect of Dumas, though perhaps with fewer of the subplots and many intertwined story elements of some of his other tales. We of course have the doomed love of Morgan and Amelie; the destined antagonism of Roland and Morgan (something with the former does all he can to stimulate, and the latter all he can to diminish); the machinations and intrigues of Napoleon against both his known and unknown enemies; and the overarching attempts by the Companions of Jehu to overthrow the revolutionary regime and reinstall the Bourbons on the throne.
There are many gripping scenes, daring adventures and near-death experiences. One of the most fascinating moments in the story for me was the Victim’s Ball. There is much contention as to the historicity of these events, but (according to legend at least) these victim’s balls were apparently secret soirees held by the children and survivors of the royalist victims of Madame Guillotine. They had the air of licentious masked balls wherein the participants dressed in the finery of the pre-revolution days and even wore fine scarlet ribbons or threads around their necks, a macabre reminder of the fate of their forbears. It would make an excellent scene in a movie version of the story.
Overall _The Companions of Jehu_ is an excellent swashbuckling adventure. Not quite in the league of _The Three Musketeers_ or _The Count of Monte Cristo_, but if you’re looking for a good fix of Dumas adventure this is a great place to go. (less)