Captain Blood Day: The Suitors of Yvonne

September 19, 2011

I hate to do this. I can’t believe I’m doing this. Here, for Captain Blood Day, is a bad review of a Rafael Sabatini book. But, given the book itself. I couldn’t very well have written a good one. And it’s not like I uncritically love all of Sabatini’s other books. This one is his first novel, The Suitors of Yvonne, and while I probably wouldn’t have been sure it was by Sabatini if his name wasn’t in the title page (and if, you know, I hadn’t known for years that his first novel was called The Suitors of Yvonne) you can sort of see hints of what he’s going to be like later.

For instance, Sabatini’s heroes are almays saying really cleverly insulting things to people they don’t like. And because they’re so cool and self-posessed and have such clever senses of humor and we know they’re all romantic and sensitive on the inside — and because their enemies are usually warped caricatures of human beings — it’s fun.

Gaston de Luynes, hero of The Suitors of Yvonne, is not like that. He is, in fact, kind of an asshole. I mean, he’s got the insulting part down, but not the clever part, and certainly not the sensitive part. Mostly, he’s just offensive.

In fairness, his situation is difficult. A week after being hired as a companion to Cardinal Mazarin’s nephew Andrea de Mancini, the boy gets drunk on his watch and the Cardinal fires him. It seems incredibly unjust at the time, but after having getten to know de Luynes a little better, I wonder whether maybe the Cardinal had a point. Anyway, the following day a guy named Eugene de Canaples forces a quarrel on Andrea and they schedule a duel. De Luynes agrees to be Andrea’s second, but then the Cardinal pays him a visit and insists that what he actually has to do is to stop the fight from taking place altogether. He accomplishes this by fastening a quarrel on de Canaples himself, and incapacitating him. Andrea still has to flee the city though, because a) de Canaples’ friends still want to kill him and b) the Cardinal wants him to go to Blois and court Yvonne de Canaples, Eugene’s sister. Which is why de Canaples wanted to fight Andrea in the first place. And the Cardinal is still threatening to hang de Luynes, for whatever reason, so he accompanies Andrea on his trip. St. Auban & Co. (de Canaples’ friends) come after them, and de Luynes proves many times over that “when in doubt, attempt to provoke a duel” is his motto in life.

On the way to Blois, de Luynes and Andrea encounter Yvonne de Canaples and her sister Genevieve. Andrea, inconveniently, falls head over heels in love with Genevieve, but that’s probably mostly so de Lynes is free to fall in love with Yvonne. And he does, and it makes him only slightly more sympathetic.

Basically, this is an “out of the frying pan, into the fire” kind of book. Has de Luynes saved Yvonne from being kidnapped? Well, now he’s going to be arrested. And when the arresting officer turns out to be a nice guy who will trust de Luynes to go fight a duel before he’s taken to the cardinal, the duel turns out to be a trap. It’s one miserable situation after another, and whenever de Luynes has a few minutes to look around him, he orchestrates another duel. My favorite instance of this is when he’s all excited about the cunning plan he’s come up with to deal with St. Auban, who has arrested Yvonne’s father and moved into her house with a bunch of soldiers. His cunning plan, it turns out, is to climb into St. Auban’s bedroom window and challenge him to a duel. A duel, by the way, in which de Luynes describes himself as cruelly toying with St. Auban. (“I made him realise that he was mastered, and that if I withheld the coup de grace it was but to prolong his agony. And to add to the bitterness of that agony of his, I derided him whilst I fenced; with a recitation of his many sins I mocked him, showing him how ripe he was for hell, and asking him how it felt to die unshriven with such a load upon his soul.”)

De Luynes isn’t a very nice guy.

He’s really my main problem with the book. If he was just a little bit more sympathetic, and maybe a bit less aggressive, I think I might have enjoyed The Suitors of Yvonne — well, not as much as Captain Blood or The Snare or other Sabatini books I really love, but much more than St. Martin’s Summer. And Sabatini is, as usual, excellent at writing a duel that one can visualize and make sense of, and duels are, in general, an excellent way to liven up a book. Although, that said, if your readers find themselves saying, “another duel? Seriously?” as I did more than once, you have too many.

I’m choosing to blame the excessive number of duels on the fact that the book was originally serialized in a magazine, and each installment had to be exciting. I can’t think of anything on which to blame de Luynes.



  1. The Suitors of Yvonne was indeed super lame. Fortunately, I think I read The Trampling of the Lilies immediately afterwards, and it was just the kind of unremitting, improbable silliness that I love.

    • I haven’t read The Trampling of the Lilies–it’s nice to know that there’s at least one silly fun one still in store. Sabatini is awesome, but so patchy.

      • I mean, people are pale and noble and stupidly honorable in it. So I don’t guarantee you’ll love it.

        • No, that’s pretty much what I’m hoping for from Sabatini in general.

  2. Aw, I just finished Suitors and it wasn’t so bad. Gaston was an asshole, true, but less so as the book progressed. And the rescue scene, despite being silly wish-fulfillment, was so perfect.

    His clever plan which you allude to, by the way, was the impersonation, not the duel that preceded it (although your presentation was humorous).

    I grant that Sabatini’s craft improved in later books.

    • I felt like the particular way in which he was an asshole in the earlier part of the book made the ways in which he wasn’t later on less believable.

      With the clever plan thing, I was trying to make a point. The duel may not have been the body of the plan, but the plan hinged on it, and I couldn’t imagine him being capable of coming up with a plan that didn’t hinge on a duel.

  3. I cannot believe you hated Suitors of Yvonne! Suitors is one of my favourite Sabatinis. I love stories where a raking wastrel reforms himself to earn the love of a virtuous lady. Especially if the lady is a little spicy and arrogant herself, like Yvonne. And especially when written by Sabatini, the king of bad-boy-makes-good stories.

    I thought Gaston’s witty repartee was hilarious, and I think it was, if not justifiable, at least understandable that he should enjoy torturing St. Auban in the final duel, considering the dishonourable and frankly cowardly way St. Auban had dealt with him earlier. And of course Gaston is going to solve all his problems with duels. He’s a duelling master. He plays to his strengths.

    Plus, how can you not love the rescue scene, with the hero valiantly beating off swarms of enemies while sheltering the damsel-in-distress with his strong arm–the tropes Errol Flynn movies are made of?

    • See, I know the storyline is the same thing Sabatini does all the time, but he hadn’t gotten very good at characterization yet, so what comes off as potentially redeemable in, say, Bardelys the Magnificent, made me hate de Luynes, and nothing he did afterwards made me even want to change my mind about him. Everything you’re saying is something I absolutely agree with if we’re talking about almost any other Sabatini book, but it just didn’t work for me here.

  4. Just read the Lovers. To each there own, but I cannot see the criticism. I liked the hero and the swordplay was far from excessive. For me, a fun summers read!!

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