3.5 - 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.