It appeared first in serial form between 1847 and 1850. In the English translations the 268 chapters of this large volume are usually subdivided into three, but sometimes four or even five individual books. In three-volume English editions, the three volumes are titled "The Vicomte de Bragelonne", "Louise de la Vallière", and "The Man in the Iron Mask."I've finally read all three volumes. I had such high hopes...
Where to begin? The expectations? The characters? The pacing? These three books were nearly tortuous to get through, and I can be an almost voracious reader. They are all hefty volumes, which makes it quite understandable that the novel itself was split into three parts. Trying to read the whole book in its entirety would be far too daunting. But to set some perspective on the whole thing, here's a run-down of my impression of each book in the Musketeers saga.
The Three Musketeers: The second-best Dumas book I've read, behind The Count of Monte Cristo. It's just plain fun. There's plenty of humor, romance, and bravado for anyone desiring a firmly buckled swash; the mystery of Milady and the intrigues of Anne of Austria provide the book with a thoroughly entertaining plot. I could not help but adore each of the main characters, and I will say now that I enjoyed watching their characters develop over all the books of the series.
Twenty Years After: I can't quite say why, but I enjoyed this one a little less than Musketeers. Perhaps it was because I saw the inevitable sobering of our heroes as they aged. It felt less like an adventure tale and more like a drama. I laughed less, and cried more, and was mystified that all of a sudden Porthos was being described as this giant of a man with the strength of a Hercules, when I did not recall any such description of him in Musketeers. This continues to be strange to me, as his size and strength play such pivotal roles in the following books. Perhaps when I re-read Musketeers I'll catch something that I missed, but it really did seem to come out of the blue.
Twenty Years After also introduced Raoul, the son of Athos and the Vicomte of Bragelonne. I was excited to see this, as it heralded a continuation of the youthful energy of the first novel.
The Vicomte of Bragelonne: This was... okay. It was a fair enough plot, and did a fair enough job of setting up the events that would cause a great deal of the action later on. It is far more about D'Artagnan and King Charles II than Raoul; the Vicomte himself makes only a few appearances in the book until the last few chapters, and is not even spoken of much either. At this point in the series, I noticed that I was most enjoying the passages where D'Artagnan was, for lack of a better phrase, pissed all the fuck off at the young King Louis. He brought a great deal of passion and nobility to the pages, and continues to do so throughout the books. I think it's one of the traits that makes him such a likeable character.
Louise de la Valliere: Uuuuugh! This book is almost all court drama, and complicated but passionate romances that go in every possible way as many times as possible. By the end of the book, it's very difficult to empathize with most of the main characters. Even Raoul, who finally plays a larger role, is so emotionally immature I started imagining him with eyeliner and jet-black hair combed in front of his eyes (this, by the way, is nothing compared to his behavior in The Man in the Iron Mask). What's even worse is that the more I saw of Aramis, the less I liked him. Where before he was a bit of a romancer, now he is a schemer, and while he takes the side of M. Fouquet, who needs all the help he can get, I couldn't help but feel that Aramis was not quite doing this out of the goodness of his heart.
The Man in the Iron Mask: I've not seen any film version of this, but at this point, I think I'd like to. Because I'd be rather interested to see how much time Louis' twin brother actually spends in an iron mask. Would you like to know how much of a role the iron mask plays in this novel? One, perhaps two chapters' worth. He is discovered, Louis says he'll be forced to wear an iron mask, he's transported to an island wearing it, is shut up in a prison, and is never heard from again.
Here be spoilers for the ending. I'd be considerate and tiptoe around it, but the ending was so dissatisfying for me, I have to rant about it.
And, as if that weren't bad enough, Raoul, for whom I had so much hope, considering he was the son of the wonderful and eloquent and noble and awesome Athos, a man beloved of kings... Raoul fucking wastes away, pining for poor little Louise de la Valliere who never even loved him in the first place. He utterly gives up on life and decides to go and get himself killed in a war in Africa. And, because Raoul has become Athos' only reason for living, Athos too wastes away. It's fucking pitiful.
Porthos dies helping Aramis, who has pretty much revealed himself to be a bit of a sleazeball, escape from the army of the King. Porthos is so simple and wonderful through all these books, it just broke my heart that he had to be taken in by Aramis, and couldn't have been at D'Artagnan's side the whole time instead. Aramis, by the way, gets to become the ambassador of Spain to France, and he's pretty smarmy about it.
Finally, what of D'Artagnan? This noble soul, as loyal a servant and soldier as any king could have ever dreamed for, was constantly beaten down by his masters; his triumphs and derring-do forgotten and ignored by the royalty saved by them; denied again and again the titles and ranks he so obviously deserved... Through all this, he served the king with grace and dignity. In the final chapter, he is given the thing he has worked for all his life, and the moment the object of his desire is placed in his hands, he's shot through the heart by a stray musket bullet, and dies.