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The Cardinal's Blades by Pierre Pevel

1/09/2011. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy The Cardinal’s Blades in the USA - or Buy The Cardinal’s Blades in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 381 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-08438-4.

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In the United Kingdom, USA and Australia, we are used to reading books written in English as the original language. Other countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden, where English is taught at an early age have bilingual reading habits. France and Russia are used to having foreign language texts translated. Many excellent books never reach the English-speaking market as they are never translated and there is so much written in our language to satisfy the most voracious of readers – at least by volume. When something is translated, the expectation is of something very fine. At least, that is the theory.

One of the reasons why translations are so rare is the problem of finding a translator to do a book justice. In the original language, there will be nuances that mean little in the new tongue. We see so little poetry in translation for this reason, scansion, metre and rhyme became lost and to try and return it means that it becomes someone else’s poem. Puns and cadences are difficult to render in another language. This gives the reviewer a headache. Are the flaws those of the original author or those of the translator.

‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ has been translated from the French version by Pierre Pevel by Tom Clegg. It is a fast-paced, swashbuckling tale of political intrigue set against the same background as Alexander Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’. This is Paris of 1633 when Cardinal Richelieu was first minister to King Lois XIII. The difference between Dumas’ France and Pevel’s are that here be dragons. Cardinal Richelieu has a dragonnet as a pet, wyverns carry couriers faster than on horseback and there are rumours of ancestral dragons that can transform into and pass as human. The society of the Black Claw (an association of the descendents of dragons) is based in Spain and is working to gain ascendancy over human society. The Cardinal’s Blades are an elite group of swordsman who work in secret for Cardinal Richelieu. At least, they were. They were disbanded five years previous to the start of this novel after a debacle at the town of Rochelle. Now the Cardinal has need for them again. He summons their captain, La Fargue, and coerces him into taking the mission. A young man, son of an important Spanish nobleman, has come to Paris after a dispute with his family but has now disappeared. La Fargue is directed to find him. The importance of the mission is due to the delicate negotiations on-going between France and Spain, which might result in peace. Agents of the Black Claw are also searching for this young Spaniard. This is a plot that twists and deceives. No-one ever sure who is on which side.

This is not the problem. That lies more in the historical detail and may or may not be a consequence of translation. At the time, especially in Paris, all gentlemen wore a rapier when they were on the streets. This was not just for protection, but also a status symbol. Duels were common. The rapier was essentially a thrusting weapon and usually only the bottom third of the blade edges were sharpened. Men who were professional fighters would have had more substantial swords either one or two-edged. In this novel, most of the fighters are stated to be armed with rapiers, yet we are expected to accept that one of these will, with one blow, strike off a man’s head, hand at the wrist or to slice open an opponent’s throat. Compounding this is the quality of standard issue pistols at the time. They were extremely inaccurate and could misfire for any number of reasons, yet on several occasions in this novel, the wielder is able to drill a hole through the forehead of a moving target. Once could be lucky but aiming at the body was more usual practice. The ball might not kill immediately but the germ-ridden cloth carried into the wound often caused death by septicaemia. I also have my suspicions about the ivory rapier carried by one of the Blades. Purported to be made from the single tooth of a dragon it is as potent as Toledo steel. The tooth and thereby the dragon would have had to be huge. Ivory, such as that from an elephant’s tusk can be easily carved, so such a rapier would be more for show and would not take an edge suitable for slicing. Ivory is brittle and cracks easily. When it does the shards are very sharp but a sword would not last long in a fight. Perhaps dragons’ teeth have extraordinary properties. If so, perhaps we deserve that knowledge.

The style is probably a matter of taste and possibly a mark of cultural differences. There are a lot of short scenes, rapidly switching from character to character. This leads to a certain amount of confusion as to who is on which side in the conflict. It also makes it difficult to identify with the characters and leaves little space to develop them in depth. They do tend to be ciphers and stereotypical. For example, the only female in the band is a baronne who has learnt swordplay as a child and is as good as any of the men.

This said, it is worth pointing out that ‘The Cardinal’s Blades’ was voted as best debut novel in the 2010 Gemmell Awards. There are a lot of fans of this swashbuckling kind of writing.

Pauline Morgan

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