By Tom Quinn
You’ve most likely heard of The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask. With all the movies and the fame, it’s difficult to not at least know of them. You may not have read either, though, on the basis that they’re by a 19th century French author, and books of that era can sometimes be difficult to work through due to their language usage. What you might not know – in fact, what you probably don’t know – is that those books are actually the first and last (respectively) in the explosive and exciting Musketeers saga.
Known commonly as the D’Artagnan Romances (named after the main hot-headed but loyal musketeer, D’Artagnan), the series starts during the reign of Louis XIII, whose wife is carrying on a love affair with an English Duke, and whose prime minister essentially controls the crown. Over the course the books, Alexandre Dumas takes the reader on a journey through the end of Louis XII’s reign and into the childhood and eventual rise to power of Louis XIV, France’s so-called Sun King.
At the start, D’Artagnan is just a hot-headed kid from Gascony who wants to make his fortune as one of the king’s Musketeers. He’s so determined that he even tries to get into a duel with someone (who will eventually become a major character) within the first few pages of the first book, meaning the series hits the ground running, and fast. In fact, in the first 62 pages of The Three Musketeers, there are at least three duels, three more near-duels, a street brawl and a house very nearly being burnt to the ground. Dumas, as an author, does not mess around.
The Three Musketeers is absurdly famous, and for good reason. The book is exciting. It’s a fast paced story, full of likeable (or at least believable) characters and all the swashbuckling action you could hope for. It’s an adventure book that has political intrigue and the meanings of friendship and honor close to its heart, leading the characters on an international adventure as they try to prove themselves by saving the lives of those they love, be it through proclaimed duty or feelings. Interestingly, D’Artagnan himself is not one of the Musketeers that the book is named for – that distinction belongs to three men that go by Aramis, Athos, and Porthos in order to hide their identities, and subsequently things in their past or present they wish to keep out of reach of those that would harm them.
As has been said, The Three Musketeers is only the beginning of the story. You can read this book on its own, enjoy it, and leave the cast to continue their adventures, or you can see what actually happens next in Twenty Years After. As the title suggests, this one picks up twenty years after the end of the events of The Three Musketeers. Loius XIV is a child, the prime minister rules the country, and the Musketeers have gone their separate ways, pulled apart by time. But D’Artagnan is not one to rest idly, and has soon embroiled himself (and his friends) in another adventure, this one involving two civil wars in two separate countries, one of which threatens to dethrone Charles I from the throne of England.
Twenty Years After focuses more on intrigue than adventure, but it still doesn’t lack. Dumas has his ineffable quartet on high speed horse chases, hatching tricky plots, and even on the front lines of the civil wars themselves. Still a fun time, Twenty Years After leaves the reader needing more – unlike The Three Musketeers, the ending feels much more open ended, pulling you onward deeper into the storylines as they branch further and further apart.
When it was originally written, the saga was written as a trilogy, the books starting with The Three Musketeers, continuing on in Twenty Years After, and finally wrapping up with The Vicomte de Bragelonne. However, the final book is actually so large (268 chapters), that the English translations tend to break it up into three books: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de Vallière, and The Man in the Iron Mask.
Once it hits that end trilogy, the story takes a distinct turn, focusing much more heavily on Loius XIV than on D’Artagnan and his friends. That said, the Musketeers do not go away. In fact, they begin finding themselves on opposite sides of a political rift that begins with the designs of one to usurp the throne and replace the King. Then things get crazy.
Ultimately, the only potentially weak link in the series is Louise de Vallière, in which Dumas relates the story of Loius XIV and his love affair with one of his wife’s maids of honor. That story reads like a Shakespearean love farce, as it takes place entirely in a country retreat with all of the court members. Push yourself on through it, though, as parts near the end are where the seeds for The Man in the Iron Mask are sewn, and you will not want to miss that background.
Ultimately, if you’re only in this for a simple adventure story, The Three Musketeers has you covered. But if you want a full-blown saga, this is the one to read. Enjoy, and remember: All for one, and one for all.
Tom is a writer, a photographer, and a libertine. He’s currently heading a new story-a-week project that can be found at yearofthewriters.tumblr.com.