This 1844 novel by Alexandre Dumas, set in the early 17th century, is one of those books that I knew a little something about just from osmosis: France, swordplay, plots, All for One and One for All. The story is, in some senses, very much what I expected, but it also took me by surprise.
The novel’s main character is actually not a musketeer, although he aspires to be one and really might as well be one, given how much time he spends with them, rather than with his own company. d’Artangan has come to Paris with an introductory letter to Tréville, the commander of the musketeers, but it gets stolen along the way. However, even without the letter, Tréville is good enough to recommend d’Artangan for a place in a training academy with the idea that he can later become a musketeer.
In the meantime, d’Artangan befriends Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, three of the king’s musketeers. The four become great friends and near-constant companions. This is one area where the book took me by surprise. These musketeers are not exactly noble servants of the king. They spend most of their time getting into duels, running up gambling debts, drinking, and carousing. They’re, in a word, troublemakers. But they are the king’s men, and that makes them good. It’s certainly better than serving the Cardinal, although the reasons for that are never clear to me, but I blame my lack of knowledge of the history for that. I just went with it for the sake of the book.
Anyway, after many chapters of running up debts and getting out of them, drinking and sobering up, and getting into fights but winning them without serious injury, d’Artangan’s landlord’s wife, Constance Bonacieux, is kidnapped. d’Artangan promises to help, and so the plot begins in earnest.
The story behind the kidnapping takes several turns, which I won’t get into—I’m not sure I could trace them all if I wanted to. Eventually, the story lands on a woman named Milady de Winter. She’s one of those wonderful lady villains of classic literature who just does what she pleases. What she pleases ends up involving poisoning, but still, she’s fun to read about. And d’Artangan, already in love with Constance, also becomes enamored of Milady until he realizes she’s involved with Constance’s kidnapping. So, he woos Milady’s servant and sneaks into her bedroom, pretending to be someone else, once again proving he’s not exactly a good guy. On the side of good, yes, but also terrible.
The continues with schemes, successful and unsuccessful. It’s fun to read, if a little too long and winding. d’Artangan is, to me, one of the least interesting characters in the book. I’d rather have learned more about Athos and Aramis, both of whom have intriguing backstories. A life of Milady would also be good fun. But this is fine for what it is. I don’t know that I loved it enough to read the other d’Artangan books, but maybe.