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GREAT FUN, BUT MORE "TWO FOR TWO!" THAN "ONE FOR ALL!"
on 28 September 2009
A REVIEW OF 'TWENTY YEARS AFTER' by ALEXANDRE DUMAS
'Twenty Years After' is the lesser-known sequel to the world-famous 'The Three Musketeers'. First published in serialised form from January-August, 1845, the book appeared only one year after its renowned predecessor, despite the action taking place two decades later. Those expecting Dumas' sequel to be a facsimile of the original swashbuckler must have been somewhat perplexed by the more unconventional approach given to the musketeers' middle age. Indeed, 'Twenty Years After' is a sprawling tale, lacking the unity of the original, not only in terms of a coherent narrative, but also via the disunity between the four main players; D'Artagnan, Porthos, Athos and Aramis. Whereas 'The Three Musketeers' has been truncated and adapted on countless occasions and may have an undeserved reputation as a "children's classic" (Those familiar with the downfall of Milady would rightly dispute this!), it is hard to imagine how the sequel could be similarly condensed and sanitised.
On one level, in 'Twenty Years After' (TYA) the reader has to give Dumas credit for not regurgitating his original. The decision to set the story the full twenty years after 'The Three Musketeers' (TTM) allows us to discover how the lead characters have changed in such time. Only D'Artagnan seems to have retained a genuinely youthful vigour despite his failure to rise up to the higher echelons of the military. The early chapters offer a useful summary of the key events of TTM, and the plot device (the scheming of the underhand Cardinal Mazarin) to bring the four back together is well-handled. The first appearance of Aramis is written with real comic flair. However, perhaps the greatest frustration of the novel in its entirety, is the lack of interaction and camaraderie between all four musketeers which made its predecessor such a joy. Throughout most of the story, our heroes operate in pairs (D'Artagnan with Porthos and Athos with Aramis), fighting on different sides. Certainly this adds to the story's increased emphasis upon characterisation by focusing on the dilemma between choosing duty over friendship. And yet, the previous interplay is just not there. Even as we approach the conclusion, it is prison bars which separate the men, even when their cause seems united.
Nevertheless, where the novel works, it works brilliantly. Morduant, embittered son of Milady, as the principle villain, weaves a dark presence throughout the core of the story. He is a scheming 'baddie', hell-bent on gaining revenge upon his mother's executioners. There is almost a 'Terminator'-style detachment to his ruthless pursuit of vengeance. His menace is a bonding force for the musketeers, and one feels that, until Morduant is finished off, our heroes are in real danger.
As in the original, the action set pieces are told with breath-taking energy, both on sea and on land. Dumas is at his best when he truly engages his heroes. The passages detailing the demise of King Charles I in battle and the attempts to rescue the fallen monarch are delivered with real panache.
Mention of England's executed King highlights another of TYA's characteristics; the lack of a consistent narrative. Whereas TTM was principally about the attempt to conceal Queen Anne's ill-advised affair with Buckingham and save royal honour, the task of writing a blurb for TYA is not an easy one. Is the key plot Queen Anne's escape from a volatile Paris? The thwarted attempt to rescue King Charles I? The contest between the musketeers and Morduant? The intrigues against Cardinal Mazarin? The list goes on. Dumas described history as the "peg" upon which he held his stories. It would be churlish to criticise the great story-teller for his historical inaccuracies (Milady's deranged son as Charles' executioner!). However, there seems to be so much going on in both England and France throughout the novel, that it is, at times, hard to keep up with the volley of names, intrigues and events.
However, despite the criticisms, TYA is a brave sequel which hits far more than it misses. In such a way it resembles 'Rupert of Henzau', Anthony Hope's darker and more controversial sequel to 'The Prisoner of Zenda'. Both 'Henzau' and TYA ignore the established formula and offer something genuinely original. This decision is commendable, and TYA is well-worth reading for its fresh approach to the musketeers saga which will continue with 'The Vicomte of Bregalonne', 'Louise De La Valliere' and the more famous, 'The Man In The Iron Mask'. The closing lines of TYA (delivered by D'Artagnan) set up the further novels with cinematic sparkle. Yet, it is telling that he does not say them to Porthos, Athos or Aramis, whose company he again lacks at the finale. Am I being greedy to just have wanted a little more "All for one"? 7/10