Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Twenty Years After brings back the old guard of The Three Musketeers (TTM), as D’Artagnan rises in the service of the Mazarin and seeks out his old friends in their various places of residence to join his cause. I was curious to see where the three musketeers would have ended up, and Dumas did not disappoint. Each person’s station was a natural extension of their characters and ambitions as set forth in TTM, including the results of their particular flaws or weaknesses. But twenty years did pass with different developments for each of them, leading initially to different loyalties in the civil unrest. D’Artagnan has remained a captain of the musketeers, passed over for promotion and generally disregarded the entire time, which leads to his accepting a position serving the unscrupulous Cardinal in hopes of winning the fame and recognition his previous service to the crown did not afford him. Aramis, now an Abbe, disillusioned with what he once thought was his life’s calling, wishes for the conflict of his days as a musketeer, which leads him to participate in the rescue of an imprisoned French duke. Athos, now a landed gentleman with a ward, retains his heightened sense of nobility and honour with the added wish to impart the same set of values to his charge, which places him firmly on the side of the royal family, to the spite of the Cardinal. Porthos, having gained an estate, married and lost a wife, finds his life empty of purpose and, without forming any personal conviction about the cause, jumps at the first chance presented to him to embark upon a mission for the Cardinal. Their choices initially set them upon opposite sides of the shadow war in France, carried into the blatant civil war in England.
So far, it was well done. The political climates and personal allegiances formed conflict that carried the story strongly and made for a compelling “where are they now” continuation for the original musketeers. They must re-evaluate their loyalties to one another and their country as they would like it to be in order to eventually join their swords for the same cause and become the single most formidable force in France. To do so, they must also revisit the ghost of their most horrible triumph: the execution of Milady de Winter. And this is where my opinion of the story diverges greatly. The grown-up son of Milady de Winter appears at the dramatic death of the executioner of Bethune and he’s out for revenge. Dispossessed of his inheritance by Charles I, Milady’s son takes the part of the Cromwellian rebels and goes after the four men who condemned his mother to death without a trial.
John Francis de Winter, called Mordaunt, never met his mother, she having died when he was a baby. Also, every thing he had ever heard of her was that she was treacherous and caused a lot of death. But he decides that since she was his mother, she must be an angel, and that must be cause for him to devote his life to her vengeance. Though he had the additional reason of his living family essentially rejecting him, I thought the motivation and rationale behind this antagonist’s campaign was somewhat lacking and the trope of the child growing up to revenge the dead parent unoriginal (maybe it was original back in Dumas’ day, who knows). His character was also sadly without depth and stood as more of a paste-board imitation of what his mother had been in TTM.
That aside, the emergence of some kind of consequence for the musketeers’ unlawful act at the end of the first book does create a lot of real emotion and character depth, transferring some more personal stakes to the national conflict. The musketeers are forced to revisit what they did, and in so doing they reveal the development of their characters since then more than anything else. Throughout their debate about how they should respond to Mordaunt’s claims for holding them to account, Athos, long touted the most noble and right-minded of the musketeers, justifies his reputation as a man of honour, Aramis reveals the further development of his unassuming character as a mask for unscrupulous pragmatism, D’Artagnan works through his habitual deference to Athos to express his personal values, and Porthos exhibits his wonted commitment to whatever his friends decide is best.
Where the story of Mordaunt intersects with that of the civil war, his role under Cromwell and his part in the death of Charles I, is where it is shown to its best advantage. It also provides clear and singular obstacles for the musketeers as they attempt to stop him and rescue the English monarch. Where Mordaunt is apart from the national arena, he devolves into a caricature of a vengeful goblin, trying desperately to live up to an absent mother’s reputation. The other antagonist has a similar problem.
Cardinal Mazarin is somewhat astute as a statesman, leveraging his relationship with the Queen of France to enact his agenda and consolidate his power. Unfortunately, he fails to do so in any meaningful way, his only victories coming at the hands of D’Artagnan while D’Artagnan is in his employ. As soon as D’Artagnan chooses to withdraw his support, the Cardinal flounders. In fact, one of the funniest scenes in the book, recalling some of the situational humour and Gascon cunning of D’Artagnan as seen in TTM, is one in which D’Artagnan manages to save the Cardinal and some select nobles while fleecing him and everyone else of their money in the same move. Even in the book, Mazarin is negatively compared to Cardinal Richelieu, mastermind of the conspiracies that were nearly the deaths of the musketeers in TTM, much like I think Mordaunt is lacking when compared to his predecessor, Milady.
Overall, I enjoyed this little saga in the D’Artagnan romances, full of intrigues, betrayals, arrests, escapes, revenge, and duels. With many call backs to events and characters of TTM, it also sets up for the subsequent books, The Vicomte de Bragelonne (which I haven’t read, but whose namesake appears first in Twenty Years After) and The Man in the Iron Mask.
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Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas