Chevalier: Book I
Very occasionally, as a reader, you have the wonderful sensation of finding a book that might have been written especially for you. It feels as though the author has looked into your head, seen all your favourite things and put pen to paper with an indulgent sigh of, ‘Oh, go on then’. And this book did that for me. It’s a rip-roaring old-fashioned adventure story set in France in the early 17th century, full of courage, loyalty, duels, romance, dastardly Spaniards, impossible odds, hair’s-breadth escapes, skirmishes, secrets and, of course, honour. And, at its heart, there’s an irresistible young hero: a fierce little firebrand with his head full of chivalry, a sword at his side and vengeance in his heart. Even better, it’s the first of a projected series. I want more. Right now.
Picardy in 1636 is a dangerous place to be, with hungry Spanish troops patrolling just over the border in Artois. For the people of the (fictional) Saillie in the Forest of Lucheux, the threat is virtually on their doorsteps, as they are sandwiched between the Flemish border and the rest of France. Raids are common but, when a troop of Spaniards ride into the little village of Dax-en-roi one night, they mean to stay. Despite the courageous resistance of the Seigneur Antoine de Roland, a brilliant swordsman who goes down fighting to save his family, the Spanish take the manor of Ancre and wreak their revenge upon its servants and women. Outside in the darkness, the groom’s son Jacques Gilbert watches in horror from the gardens – only to see a small figure scrambling from one of the windows. The Spanish have overlooked the Seigneur’s son André, a child of only twelve years old, and it’s an oversight that will come to cost them dear.
As the months turn into years, André de Roland nurses his desire for revenge on the Spanish, who have not only murdered his father but also driven his mother to suicide. He’s now the new Seigneur, for all that he should still be at school, and he’s determined to free his village from their occupying forces. To make matters worse, the girl to whom he’s unofficially betrothed – Anne du Pré – is being held hostage with her siblings at her own manor and André knows that a gentleman should never desert a lady in peril. But this will take time. Already a deft swordsman, thanks to his father’s training, André starts planning resistance and, with his faithful Jacques at his side, he soon gathers together a handful of young hotheads like himself, who are willing to risk their lives for freedom. The next step is to turn this ragged band into competent soldiers, under the very noses of their invaders, knowing all the while that a single misstep will mean certain death.
The story is framed as a collection of testimonies, compiled some decades later by an abbé who is writing a biography of André de Roland, and who has sought out some of the Chevalier’s boyhood acquaintances. We never hear from André himself, but see him through the eyes of others: the fiercely loyal Jacques, devoted beyond measure to his friend; the laconic, sceptical Stefan Ravel, a tanner and former soldier who becomes the leader of this tattered little army; the earnest, diffident Jean-Marie Mercier; the local priest; and extracts from Anne du Pré’s journal. I don’t usually like narratives which jump from one place to another, but here it works perfectly, as each voice takes up the tale in turn, each perfectly pitched and distinct and each offering a different take on André himself. For Stefan, he’s brave as hell but an arrogant little twerp at times for all that; for Anne, he’s a romantic hero; for Jacques, he can do no wrong whatsoever and he’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. Their voices all sound right for the period, and the only one who’s anything less than completely natural is the priest, who’s obviously conscious of how a Grand Historical Narrative should be told.
As each of the characters feels so real, you’re drawn deeply into their emotions and what comes across very clearly is that this is a story about how love motivates us to risk our lives. We might endanger ourselves to avenge those we’ve loved and lost; we might be driven to splendid deeds by the dream of seeing them reflected in our beloved’s eyes; or we might buy into a crazy dream of freedom because we love the man who offers to lead us into it. And André’s people really do love him, for all that he’s a lord and they’re peasants (a social gulf that some, like André, find it easier to cross than others, like Stefan). They see this fierce, scrappy, idealistic young lad – the kind who rarely gets knocked down but, when he does, damn well gets back up again, and again, and again – and they believe in him. And belief can sometimes work miracles.
Ah, I just loved it. I wish I’d had the next book on hand, because I promise you I’d have turned the final page of Honour and the Sword and picked up the sequel immediately. Do I need to say any more to convince you to give this a go? If you’re a fan of flashing blades, ambushes, and deep, beautifully-written friendships, you really should seek it out. For all the martial glamour, the focus remains firmly on the people at the book’s heart and I ended up worrying for all of them, not only for André (although he kept me biting my nails often enough with his foolish, daring, noble escapades). It’s a proper swashbuckler, marking out its territory with bravura somewhere between The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood, with a dash of Cyrano de Bergerac. All in all, absolutely perfect fare for snuggling up on a winter’s evening.
My only worry – and it’s a big one – is that the sequel (In the Name of the King) was published in 2011 and since then there’s been nothing. Berridge published an unrelated novel in 2012, but there hasn’t been a sequel to that either, though her website suggests she was writing one. Her Twitter hasn’t been updated since 2014 and I’m now anxious that perhaps I will never have the chance to find out what happens to André de Roland…