Musketeers and Dragons
A review of The Alchemist in the Shadows, by Pierre Pevel.
Review by Paul Weimer
“This is a Black Seal. Each of them contains a drop of dragon’s blood, used by the Black Claw to seal its most precious documents…” He returned the case and Rochefort pocketed it immediately. “So the Black Claw is a player in this game.”
–Captain La Fargue, speaking to Rochefort.
In the Cardinal’s Blades, French author Pierre Pevel introduced readers to an alternate 17th century France. One where Musketeers and Cardinal’s Blades, just as in the Dumas novels and movies made from them squabble as they protect France, true, but in Pevel’s world, their enemies extend beyond Spain, Austria and England to enemies of a draconic sort.
The Alchemist in the Shadows takes up several months after Captain La Fargue, invited to reform the once-disgraced Cardinal’s Blades, stopped a plot by draconic agents to establish a lodge of dragon worshippers. In the Alchemist, the Cardinal has been approached by an offer from a beautiful and notorious spy, La Donna, of intelligence regarding a plot against the French throne. But she has conditions on revealing all, and other powers scheme and plot in the feverish politics and cutting swordplay of 17th century France. And who is the mysterious titular character of the novel and what are *his* goals? Can the Cardinal’s Blades rise to the challenge again of thwarting France’s enemies, both domestic and foreign?
Therein lies the tale.
As the sequel to The Cardinal’s Blades, Pevel takes the opportunity to extend and expand the alternate France of the first novel. One of my strongest criticisms of The Cardinal’s Blades was the fact that the draconic and arcane elements really felt like a patina rather than being integral and richly woven into the world. Although he wrote this book in France several years ago, it feels like Pevel had read and taken my criticism to heart. We get to see a lot more draconic action in this world, ranging from the small dragons La Donna employs as companions and messengers to great dragons indeed. We also get to see a number of additional draconic fauna that inhabit this alternate world. Too, there is more magic and more sorcery in the sword and sorcery of the novel. In this, the novel started to feel much more like Martha Wells’ seminal novel Element of Fire, which I’ve described as a “Musketeers with Magic” novel, with a French analogue in Ile-Rien.
The plot is relatively straightforward without being too pedestrian. There are a couple of central mysteries at the heart of the book. The subplots of the novel I think were a little weaker than in the first novel. Perhaps the fact that the first novel had a “get the gang back together” sort of vibe, and this one started with the Blades together was in the end a weakness. On the other hand, the action of the novel continues Pevel’s ability to channel Dumas. It was easy for me to envision the feats of the characters in terms of comparison to Musketeer movies, and much of the fun of the book is in seeing the characters bravely act in a larger than life fashion.
As far as character development, we do see some extra sides to a couple of characters, especially Agnes, but a major and shocking development on one of the characters in the first novel is barely touched. I had expected that development to be a major factor in this book, but was sorely disappointed on that score. I would have to say that the characters in the novel are somewhat unevenly treated, and can only hope that future novels help balance this out.
The novel, like the first, is written in a peculiar third person omniscient tone. I don’t know if its an artifact of how Pevel writes in the original French, the nature of the translation, or just the stylistic choice on Pevel’s part, but the narrative is loaded with editorial omniscient comments on the action.
The other odd stylistic choice is a fair amount of infodumping. Pevel has not yet quite learned the art of folding in crucial setting information in a smooth way. Time and again, Pevel has digressions on features of Paris or its environs, although it must be admitted that, unlike the first novel, he has thankfully eschewed the practice of explaining features to the point of describing what happened to them long after the events of the narrative. Sometimes, though, these infodumps, while fascinating, slow down the narrative.
On the other hand, as mentioned above, Pevel captures the action kinetics of the world of the Musketeers very well indeed. When the text turned to action, I felt like I was watching outtakes from the 1970’s version of the Three and Four Musketeers, and it’s clear once again that Pevel has studied his Dumas to get the feel right. This is probably one of the strongest facets to the entire novel.
So, do I recommend The Alchemist in the Shadows? Well, those who read and enjoyed the Cardinal’s Blades will probably be satisfied and sated by another turn in the world of La Fargue’s men (and woman). The more fantastic nature of the plot and revealed setting bits will likely appeal to most readers of the first novel, especially those who, like me, felt the first book was lacking somewhat in that department.
As far as readers new to Pevel, the story in the Alchemist in the Shadows is very independent of the first novel , and so I suppose that people who were unafraid of jumping into the world headfirst could certainly get their first dose of Musketeers and Dragons here rather than starting with the Cardinal’s Blades.
I was born and raised in Staten Island, the forgotten borough of New York City. After a stint in California better glossed over, I've lived and worked for the last 8 years in the Great White North that is Minnesota. In the real world, I work at a mundane job having nothing to do with speculative fiction except when I ply my colleagues with SF references... On the other side of the veil, I've been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years. I started with Asimov, Bradbury, Vance, Tolkien and Fantasy, and have been hooked ever since. Over the last few years, I've been writing reviews of the books I read. My other genre love is roleplaying games, and I've been playing those for 25 years. I have been running the same play by email game for over 15 years (Strange Bedfellows), based on the Amber world of Roger Zelazny. I also play with local gamers, and go to the occasional gaming convention. Oh, and one day, I will actually write my trunk novel.