Title: Chien du Heaume
Date of Publication: November 2009
Awards: Prix Imaginales 2010 (French novel category)
Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire - Étonnants Voyageurs 2010 (French novel category)
Prix Oriande 2010
No English translation to date.
Last Fall (yes, as always, am a bit late), it seemed you couldn't go anywhere without hearing about his short medieval fantasy novel. As listed above, the author has won quite a number of French awards, been invited and interviewed on a great many podcasts and genre-related websites. The book was even mentioned on Locus! This is in and of itself very impressive, it becomes even more when you know that this is a debut novel.
So, of course, I had to read this, and I did along with two fellow bloggers Lelf and Lishbei. We set a date at which we were to have read the book and then we exchanged back and forth.
Chien du Heaume is a very powerful story that bodes well for Justine Niogret's career. It's not perfect but then, there's no such thing as a perfect novel, let alone a perfect debut novel. A taste of her dark poetic prose is well worth it and her dream-like, Gothic setting is bound to enthrall you.
Chien du Heaume is the name of her main character. A soldier, Chien [dog] has no name that she can remember, no family since her father's death when she was still a child. All that she has is an ax, a particular one with snake-like engravings, and that she yields expertly. Chien is not your typical heroine. In fact, there's nothing heroic about her as the prologue soon reveals. She's not evil, but she is on a quest, to reclaim her identity and her name, and she lets nothing get in the way of her quest. No damsel in distress and not some sexy warrior, Chien's path will cross that of Lord Bruec who just might be able to tell her where her ax comes from and therefore where she comes from.
I'd be hard pressed to call this a fantasy novel as there are no elves, hobbits or unicorns in sight. Some fantastical elements do make their way into the narration, but they read more like metaphors. Such is the role of one mysterious knight called The Salamander who IMHO seems to be some sort of mythological figure embodying death in a broad sense; he also marks the end of an era.
Justine Niogret is clearly a specialist of the medieval period, as showed by her glossary at the end of the novel, which details and explains, in the light and humorous tone the author displays in interviews, certain medieval weapons and habits. Chien du Heaume reads more like a historical novel set in medieval times.
I've been told that in one interview, the author claimed to have constructed her novel like a series of short stories. While there is no overall plot, besides Chien's quest for her identity (yet even that seems to recede in the background), I wouldn't regard this as a short story collection centered on the same character. This is clearly a novel, even though intricate and complex plotting are not on topic here. The flow of narration follows the rhythm of everyday life in Bruec's castle: slow, not always peaceful, but far from fast-paced.
Chien du Heaume is a novel all about sensation and how Justine Niogret's poetic prose leaps of the page and translates into ghostly images of a castle lost in the mist, cruel gory battles, knights of another era and a way of life that can only be encountered in history books.
It's not a powerful novel because of the strength of its intrigue, the authenticity of its characters or the richness of its setting (though it does not lack in these categories), its power resides in the way the written word seems to come alive as the pages turn. It's easy to excuse the sometimes clumsy uses of obvious plot devices when the novel displays such literary quality.
Chien du Heaume is probably not for the die-hard fantasy fan. Or rather, it's perfect if you are willing to try something altogether different. It's a breath of fresh air that will linger like a ghost.