Whenever I finish a book, I want to discuss it, but the urge usually goes away because I'll start a new book before I can sit down and write a well-thought out review. Lately I've been spewing out spontaneous reviews on my MySpace blog because it's convenient. Tonight I'll break the habit and spew it out here.
The only other book I've ever read by the great Alexandre Dumas is The Count of Monte Cristo. I enjoyed it enough to buy two more books by him, and considering the fact that the author died in 1870 and I usually stick to modern genre fiction, that's really saying something. If Dumas were alive today, I believe he'd regularly hit the bestseller lists.
Okay, The Three Musketeers takes place in 17th century France, so it's historical fiction written by a 19th century Frenchman. At first, as the main character was introduced, I had trouble liking him and getting into the story. I had the impression that Dumas was trying too hard to settle into the literary tropes of the past. He took pains to compare his protagonist to Don Quixote, although D'Artagnan has nothing in common with the former. But the story quickly picked up. Dumas has what I think of as a modern sense of pacing. He devotes most of his words to action, dialogue, and suspense, and he builds scenes so you have to turn the page and find out what will happen next. In reading this book, I expected a conventional swashbuckling tale of friends who go around doing heroic deeds. But this book exceeded my expectations by a long shot. I think one of the main elements that sets it apart from similar fiction is the villain. She's a clever, beautiful, ruthless bitch. This story takes place in a time when women were considered lesser creatures, but all of the male characters are terrified of her, and with good reason. It sounds cartoony, but Dumas makes her believable without reducing the heroism of the protagonists in any way. She's almost funny, mostly scary. In the end, I respected her and wanted to kill her myself. We've all seen our share of ruthless female villains, but this one stands out in my mind as being a cut above the rest. She doesn't use magic--it's not that kind of book--but her skills at seduction are pushed just slightly beyond the realm of human ability, and she's pretty much a genius, so she achieves a demonic status to the male characters and to the reader.
Of course, a kick-ass villain is nothing without kick-ass protagonists. D'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are a study in contrast. One is brave and too impulsive, one is a near-suicidal former nobleman, one is a gigantic idiot, and one is a peaceful wannabe monk. The way they meet each other is hilarious, and their interaction throughout the novel is just pure fun. I think the reason Dumas's novels are so popular is because everything is pushed just slightly beyond the bounds of reality, without becoming fantasy or even beyond possibility. The relationship between the four protags isn't quite as silly as that between Egon, Ray, Venkman, and Winston from Ghostbusters, because these guys have their serious moments and their arguments. As with any great story, the larger-than-life characters are portrayed as real people.
I feel a little silly for reviewing a novel that must have been reviewed by thousands of people before me. Oh well. I'm glad I bought Queen Margot, because I want more Dumas.
In the meantime, I'm taking a break from translated French novels to listen to a modern crime/action novel by David Baldacci. It's called Last Man Standing. So far, so good, although it's a little too testosterone-laden for my tastes. I would rather read about a guy's inner feelings than the specifics of all the guns he owns. But I like the premise. An FBI hostage rescue team goes into a drug operation to take out the bad guys, but it turns out the team was set up, and everyone gets killed except for one fluke--the main character, who froze at the critical moment and therefore missed the gunfire meant to kill him. Now people believe he betrayed his team, and he has to endure the accusing stares of the widows of his best buddies, not to mention his coworkers and bosses. I suppose his moment of freezing must have been psychic intuition, but I will read and find out.
Since I'm on this long review kick, I'll add a final blurb about the movie The Prestige. It's worth seeing, and it will bend your mind in weird new ways. However, I thought it was a bit too convoluted. The ending was especially hard to get, at least for me. You have to think outside the magic box. Still ... fun premise, awesome acting, cool cinematography, and so forth. And it is very different from The Illusionist, so see both of them if you can.