I am a connoisseur of old swashbuckling stories, the kind of historical adventure tales that were arguably the western world’s most popular form of fiction in the hundred years from the publication of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe in 1820 to Johnston McCulley’s first Zorro novel in 1919. At their height, Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island were huge worldwide bestsellers that still resonate with readers today.
Of course, many contemporary readers prefer their fiction in a more modern mode, and I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to go back to the 19th century to find a thrilling swashbuckler. A strong story boldly told never truly goes out of fashion, and there are some excellent novelists working today whose stories hearken back to the old swashbucklers, but whose writing is thoroughly modern. I’m going to tell you about a couple of terrific series currently unfolding on the shelves of your local bookstore, and then end with a look at an old favorite in a new guise.
First up is American novelist William Dietrich’s Ethan Gage series, published by HarperCollins. This series is set in the Napoleonic era, and is clearly modeled, at least in part, on the late George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. Like Flashman, the hero is a self-described amoral rogue who gets drawn into every major fracas of his time. But Dietrich’s books are no mere homage to Fraser, as they have their own distinctive tone; Dietrich is pulpier than Fraser, and has fewer qualms about embroidering on history in the pursuit of outlandish action scenes or occult overtones.
Dietrich’s hero, Ethan Gage, is an American frontiersman who is first introduced to us in Napoleon’s Pyramids. He’s a gambler and opportunist who finds himself in Europe after attaching himself to Ben Franklin during his term as Ambassador to France. In classic pulp fashion, Gage wins a mysterious Egyptian amulet in a game of cards, refuses to sell it to an ominous foreigner, and is soon being pursued through the Parisian night by mysterious robed figures. And suddenly the novel is off, at a breakneck pace, and before you know it Gage is in Egypt racing to discover a mystery of the ancients before his shadowy enemies can get to it first. It’s there that he meets Astiza, a dark-eyed, cryptic beauty who first tries to assassinate Gage, and then becomes his lover. A recurring character in the series, she’s more than a match for Gage: she’s smarter than him, better educated, both wily and wise, and she actively pursues her own agenda, which adds a welcome element of unpredictability into the stories.
All the Gage books are as fast-paced as the first, as Dietrich takes his hero to fight the Barbary Pirates, explore the Louisiana Purchase (before it was purchased), get involved in Haiti’s slave revolt, and play a role in the Napoleonic battles of Marengo, Trafalgar, and Austerlitz. And the writing just gets better and better as the series goes on. Gage’s adventures are now up to their seventh entry, The Three Emperors, but you’ll want to start from the beginning with Napoleon’s Pyramids.
For those who prefer their historical adventures a few centuries further back, I offer the Outlaw Chronicles by British author Angus Donald, published in the United States by St. Martin’s Griffin. The titular outlaw in the series is none other than Robin Hood, the original swashbuckler himself, who was brought into modern tales by Walter Scott in the aforementioned Ivanhoe. The books in this series are fast-paced, the characters are memorable and well-drawn, and the dialogue is crisp and modern. But Donald’s Robin Hood isn’t Scott’s merry and chivalrous rogue, he’s a much more dangerous man: he’s a charismatic but ruthless renegade knight with a grudge against the aristocracy, and the author’s portrayal of the hard life of a band of medieval outlaws rings true.
After Robin is pardoned by King Richard for services to the crown, his outlaw band is retrained and reinvented into a company of hard-handed mercenaries, who follow King Richard to Palestine in the Third Crusade. The author has done his homework, and his depiction of the bloody work of combat in the 12th century is in equal parts thrilling and horrific. This is solid historical adventure that doesn’t shy away from the nasty realities of life in the Late Middle Ages: Donald tells it as it was.
Though Robin is at the center of all the novels, they are told from the point of view of his young bard and lieutenant, Alan Dale, who is the simple and good-hearted rogue Robin is not. Though he’s loyal to his master, he’s often appalled by the lengths his leader will go to to achieve his ends. Dale is the voice and the conscience of these stories, providing a solid foundation to Robin’s wild adventures.
Donald has just published his sixth book in the series, The Iron Castle, and though each book stands well on its own, I recommend once again that you start with the first one, Outlaw. That way you can see where this version of Robin and Alan Dale comes from, before Donald takes them off in a direction that’s uniquely his own.
Finally, I want to recommend to you an old friend, Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, which is now available from BBC Books in a sparkling new English translation by Will Hobson. If you first read this marvelous novel more than 10 years ago, the odds are that you read it in one of the old translations that date back to the mid-19th century. As popular as those versions have been over the years, I’m afraid they don’t even begin to capture the verve and drive of Dumas’ original writing in French. But Hobson gets it. Here’s a line from the scene where d’Artagnan declares himself on the side of the musketeers against the Cardinal’s Guard, as rendered by William Barrows in 1846:
“True,” replied d’Artagnan, “I have not the dress, but I have the heart and soul of a musketeer; I feel it, sir, and it impels me along, as it were, by force.”
And here are the same lines as translated by Will Hobson in 2014:
“It’s true I lack the uniform,” replied d’Artagnan, “but I have the soul. My heart is a musketeer’s. I feel it, sir, and it urges me on.”
See what I mean? If you loved reading The Three Musketeers before, you’ll love re-reading it in this new version — and if you’ve never read it, you no longer have any excuses!
Lawrence Ellsworth is an author, editor, and translator of historical adventure fiction. His new anthology, The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, compiling fifteen stories by the masters of the genre, is published by Pegasus Books.