Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Beau Sabreur by PC Wren

Everyone knows about Beau Geste, the most famous English novel about the French Foreign Legion. If you've read it, you remember: those opening scenes, the fort manned by silent and motionless men, the fire, the jewel, the mystery. What happened at Fort Zinderneuf? Two of the men who disappeared into the desert, never to be heard of again--the scrapegrace Americans Hank and Buddy--were his own men, but Major Henri de Beaujolais of the Spahis, that dashing officer, rarely permits himself the luxury of curiosity. The Americans are dead, that must be it...

Beau Sabreur, the sequel to Beau Geste, is the Major's story. How he travelled to join the Legion; how he lived a life of adventure and danger and excitement; how he travelled in disguise as a spy; how he dueled and battled in the pursuit of his stern Duty to France. This is a melodramatic romance, I might as well let you know at once, and so (naturally) this love of Duty calls forth a corresponding scorn of the wiles of women in the gallant Major's heart. Only a fool would give his heart to a woman; the wise man stands free, and is not enslaved by a glance or led about by feminine whims.

You can already see where this story is going, can't you? The Major meets--and is captivated by--Miss Mary Hankinson Vanbrugh, an American lady travelling, somewhat unwisely, in the desert as the guest of the commandant of the French-held town of Zaguig. All too soon Zaguig becomes a formerly French-held town; in a bloody uprising, its inhabitants rid themselves of their shackles. De Beaujolais is torn three ways--between his Duty, which calls him away at once bearing important news to his superiors; his brother-soldiers, who are left to perish defending the citadel; and his natural inclination to rescue Miss Vanbrugh, fling Duty to the winds, and whirl her away to the Saharan equivalent of Gretna Green.

Meanwhile, there have among the Arab tribes risen to prominence two mysterious men who have welded those splintered tribes into a force to be reckoned with. Though he has saved life, love, and honour intact from the ruin of Zaguig, the trial of Major Henri de Beaujolais's love and honour has only just begun...

This is a really hard book to classify. Oh, it's not a good book; it lacks all the brilliance of Beau Geste and most of that book's good points, while capitalising heavily on its weak points. In fact I found it slightly infuriating.

From the summary so far, you will be forgiven for supposing that it's complete bosh from beginning to end--silly romantic stuff, over which young ladies like myself might be supposed to drop silent tears. It might as well, you say, have been written by Rosie M Banks.

Well, not quite.

Halfway through this gelatinous plot, the book abruptly changes gears and commences to laugh at itself. We hear a different side of the story. We are thrown to the care of different characters. Instead of slush, we are treated to comedy that is nearly as tiresome. It wraps up with a plot twist--or maybe more of a slight hiccup--that does not amaze, since we guessed it on page 37 when it was first foreshadowed.

This mid-story change of gear is not entirely unfortunate. There's quite a lot in the second half that is a good deal funnier and more interesting than the first. And it's nice to know that PC Wren could laugh at his own melodrama. But the problem with deflating that romantic bubble, so carefully overblown in part 1, is that the book then explodes with a faint pop, leaving only a quickly-dispersed mist behind. An anticlimax, in fact. It is as though you were watching a play, and halfway through, found yourself looking into the green-room and the wings.

Beau Sabreur is memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. Read it only if you really, really want to know what happened to the characters from Beau Geste...

Gutenberg Australia etext

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