Joseph Balsamo - Alexandre Dumas I read this story in two volumes: the Collier editions of _Joseph Balsamo_ and _Memoirs of a Physician_ (which are great translations). I will admit first of all that the first time I attempted to read these I didn't get very far into the book before abandoning it. I think this was due mostly to my expectations, since this story is not really a swashbuckling adventure tale (though it has its share of intrigue) and I was expecting something more like _The Three Musketeers_. I'm glad that I gave the story a second chance though because, for all its differences from his better known tales, it's still classic Dumas.

We start with a suitably moody scene as a mysterious figure enters a secret chamber hidden in the mountains near the Rhine in the midst of a night time storm only to be confronted by the representatives of the secret order of the Illuminati who wish to overthrow the corrupt political regimes of the day. From here things move apace and we discover that the figure we have met is the elusive Joseph Balsamo (later know more famously as the adventurer and supposed immortal Count Cagliostro). Balsamo is entrusted with the leadership of his sect and given the commission to further the fall of the French monarchy.

The story then shifts to another locale: the estate of the impoverished aristoractic Tavernay family. The father, the Baron de Tavernay, is a crusty old man, barely living at a subsistence level despite his title and estate and when not railing at the circumstances of the present, he is living on his memories of the glorious past. Here we also meet one of Dumas' most interesting, and frustrating, characters: Gilbert, a servant boy raised by the Tavernays. Gilbert is a model figure of his times: a boy born to low estate, but with a quick mind and who has read just enough Rousseau and Voltaire to have a rather large chip on his shoulder. Gilbert constantly rails at the injustice of fate that has set foolish aristocrats above himself simply through the chance of birth, and hungers for the fall of this unjust regime. Warring with this inborn dislike of the people who raised him (albeit with little enough care for his welfare) is his nearly all-consuming passion for the apple of the Baron de Tavernay's eye, his daughter Andree.

Of course Andree barely knows that Gilbert exists and so his days are spent in a constant froth, sometimes railing against the injustice of his station, and at others at the injustice of his unrequited love. Into the midst of this little domestic purgatory comes Balsamo, a dashing figure to all who not only promptly informs the horrified Baron that he will soon be visited by the dauphin's fiance who is on her way to Paris (the ill-starred Marie Antoinette), but then mysteriously produces all that the impoverished family needs to impress this great personage apparently out of thin air.

From here a third major thread joins the tale as we begin to be told of the political intrigues of court and see the characters of Marie Antoinette, her somewhat feckless fiance (the future Louis XVI) who lives constantly under the thumb of his domineering grandfather, Louis XV. Added to this power family are the courtiers, most notably Louis XV's mistress Madame du Barry and the old and wily Duke de Richelieu, who are constantly manoeuvering for position at court and who draw into their schemes the hapless Gilbert and innocent Andree, and who in turn are drawn into the wider schemes of Balsamo.

This description barely scratches the surface of what is going on in the tale and doesn't even touch on other interesting elements such as Andree's heroic brother Philippe, the Tavernay's servant girl Nicole (the former lover of Gilbert who also happens to be the spitting image of Marie Antoinette), and a very amusing portrait of the hen-pecked philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who befriends Gilbert as the latter journeys to Paris. Dumas uses his consummate skill to bring together the varied strands of his plot and show us how all of these characters will be brought together in order to further the plans of the master manipulator (and mesmeric magician) Balsamo.

The only real stumbling block I had, and the thing that put me off the most during my first attempt at the story, were the scenes involving Louis XV and his court. While some elements of this were interesting (namely the intrigues of Madame du Barry as she attempts to get an official presentation at court) others left me somewhat cold as we seemed to follow the foppish king and his meaningless diversions a bit too much. I see what Dumas was doing here: presenting us with a detailed picture of the inherent moral bankruptcy of the French monarchy at the time and priming us with the roots of its ultimate downfall, but one scene of kingly decadence is often much like another and began to get a bit tedious in the end. That said it's still a great story and I recommend it to any hard core fan of Dumas. The character of Gilbert is worth the price of admission and even though he is at times, as I mentioned, a very frustrating, even infuriating, character I think in many ways he is a fascinating one as well.