Je suis le capitaine Henri Villon et je mourrai bientôt. I am captain Henri Villon and I will die soon.
Non, ne ricanez pas en lisant cette sentencieuse présentation. N’est-ce pas l’ultime privilège d’un condamné d’annoncer son trépas comme il l’entend ? C’est mon droit. Et si vous ne me l’accordez pas, alors disons que je le prends.
No, don't smirk when reading that pretentious opening. Isn't it the last priviledge of the condemned to proclaim their death however they wish? It is my right. And if you don't grant it to me, then let us say I'm taking it.
That's how the story starts. Or ends, rather.
Le Déchronologue is the story of Henri Villon, a pirate captain in the Carabbeans of the 17th century. The story is told in non-linear order, jumping from 1653 when those first lines in the prologue are penned to 1640 when the first chapter starts. From Villon on his futuristic timeship being blown up to Villon as pirate captain investigating maravillias is quite a jump, but it's not the story's greatest jump.
Every chapter begins by telling you when and where it's set, for example "Archipel inexploré de la Baja Mar (CIRCA 1652)" ('Unexplored archipelago of the Baja Mar (circa 1652)') a chapter which immediately follows "Désert du Yucatan (FIN DU TEMPS CONNU)" ('Yucatan Desert (END OF KNOWN TIME)').
That's right. We're travelling to THE END OF TIME. #YOLO
So that's the structure of the book. A book that jumps around in time, because it's a book about timetravellers fucking with the timeline and the tenacious pirate captain who decides to fuck back.
The entire book (excepting epilogue) is told via Villon's journal of the last 13 or so years of his life, written on the eve of the last battle (where he gets blown up in the prologue). Villon is uncompromising with his faults (or other people's), a right bastard at times, an honourable man more often, utterly devoted to his quest for knowledge about what the maravillias are and what they can do, moody, tenacious, with a sharp wit and sense of irony, stingy on backstory and, very importantly, a survivor of the Siege of La Rochelle
Villon's not just French, he's a Protestant Huguenot -- you can imagine how much that endears him to the Catholic Spaniards chasing him.
That Villon is a survivor of the Siege of La Rochelle is one of the first thing we learn about him and it informs SIGNIFICANT parts of his characters. It may not look like it at first, but Villon is deeply self-hating, bordering at times on nihilism, and has massive issues regarding women and children. In fact, his very drive to figure out the maravilias is born of what he did/was complicit in the Siege of La Rochelle.
If you don't know what happened at the Siege of La Rochelle -- or you're like me and you learned about it in school and later you forgot -- it's eventually revealed in text what happened. It comes in the book after several ominous references to it -- Villon at one point has a very bad acid rip and hallucinates the screams of the children, that sort of thing -- and in the specific scene after he's been pushed about on both the fact that he's a Huguenot and that he researches the maravilias. This is what he has to say about it:
— Moi j’y étais, au siège de La Rochelle, au nom de la Réforme et de la foi. Et je fus de ceux qui en chassèrent les plus faibles quand la famine fut sur nous, pour gagner encore un peu de temps et préserver les assiégés en état de combattre. Je les ai vus et entendus, ces malheureux, bannis sur nos ordres, errer et agoniser chaque jour un peu plus, piégés entre nos murs et les rangs de l’armée de monsieur de Richelieu qui avait refusé de les laisser passer. Et si c’est diablerie que de promouvoir des moyens de conserver boissons et aliments des années durant sans risquer de les voir se gâter, si c’est diablerie de produire de la lumière sans flamme, de soigner l’incurable et de s’efforcer de sauver son prochain, alors Satan est mon maître et je suis son serviteur, et je compisse vos gueules de rats putrides !"I was there, me, at the siege of La Rochelle, in the name of faith and the Reformation. And I was one of those who drove out the weakest when famine was upon us, to win a little more time and keep the assieged able to fight. I saw and I heard them, those poor souls, banished on our orders, wander and die slowly every day a little more, trapped between our walls and the ranks of Richelieu's army who refused to let them through. And if it is the devil's work to promote ways to keep drink and food for years without risking that they'll rot, if it is the devil's work to produce light without flame, to heal the incurable and try to save your neighbour, then Satan is my master and I am his servant, and I piss on your stinky rat faces!
Like, wow, okay, Villon. OKAY. I understand perfectly, but at the same time, it is hilariously enough not the only time in the book where Villon calls himself Satan's servant/footman.
So that's Villon.
The book is populated with a very varied cast, from the nigh incomprehensible Féfé de Dieppe to the Baptist, who ends literally able to walk through time. Also Brieuc. I really like Brieuc, who is probably the kindest person in the entire book -- something Villon really admires (I ship them) -- and dies for his trouble. The most prominent of the secondary characters, however, are Sévère, Mendoza and Arcadio, all of whom are both interesting in their own right and have fascinating relationships to Villon.
Sévère is not her real name. She's a timetraveller who is no longer allowed to timetravel and so has to rely on Villon. Well. She doesn't HAVE to, but she does. Villon is madly in love with her, something he realises is a great weakness -- but he saved her and as I've said above, he has massive issues about not being able to sav women -- and it's something she finds... useful, I guess. She doesn't dislike him and she's not just using him, but she is using him and they both know it. She likes him, even, by her own admission but "not like that" and Villon respects that. He can't stop himself from hoping she'll love him back, but he respects that she doesn't.
Mendoza is a Spanish corsair. You can imagine how he (Catholic, Spanish, corsairr) feels towards Villon (Protestant, French, pirate) when they first meet. It does not go well! Mendoza basically tortures him and they remain hilariously polite towards each other. The next time they meet, Mendoza helps Villon escape from jail, sort of. Then Mendoza tries to go back to Spain CROSSES HIS OWN TIMESTREAM somehow survives with his sanity sort of intact and becomes Villon second-in-command as well as the owner of the journals we're reading. (I ship it.)
Arcadio is Villon's one-time cellmate who forms an unlikely friendship with him. The most important thing about Arcadio, though, is that he's a Maya. Specifically, he's an Itza from Noj Peten. As such he has a bone to pick with the Spanish Empire and the Itza having been granted, via the vagaries of timetravel bullshit affecting the world in the story, the means to fight back against the Spanish, they fight back. They fight back with gusto, because the Spanish Empire might be the Spanish Empire, but it doesn't hold a candle to machine guns and time cannons or even something as simple as easy long-distance communications via radios. The Itza are presented as entirely justified in wanting revenge from the Spanish -- by no means are Spanish atrocities glossed over, from the first chapter we are introduced to the idea that the Spanish have resorted to human experimentation to figure out the maravilias, including deliberately exposing captives to malaria -- but as time goes on Villon starts to see that the religious zeal of the Itza reminds him far too much of La Rochelle.
There is one more thing to talk about and it's THE FLYING DUTCHMAN. Spoilers, it's not actually the Flying Dutchman, it's actually AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER. Specifically, the USS George Washington
Because see, while all the radios and boxes of quinine and machine guns and mp3 players and history books (lol forever at Villon's reaction to learning about Mary Read and Anne Bonny) and cheap IKEA furniture is being thrown back to the 17th century for anyone to grab, sell and use, so has a mysterious vessel that pirates and corsairs of the time alike decide to call the Flying Dutchman, because it is unlike anything they have ever seen both in firepower and mode of propulsion.
In the climax/end of the book, Villon and what's left of the all the fleets, pirate or not, of the time (plus some timetravelling pirates, like François le Clerc
and SIR FRANCIS DRAKE
, not even kidding), all go up against the Flying Dutchman. They have a plan. It's a great plan! But in the end they're 17th and 16th century pirates and they're going up against a fucking nuclear powered aircraft carrier.
They die. They all die. Including Villon, who told us so right there at the beginning and Sévère who dies in his arms before the ship gets blown up.
But Villon's ship isn't just a 17th century pirate ship, is it? It's Le Déchronologue, which has been equiped with time cannons by one of the various parties of time travellers fucking with the time stream. And so in the end, in what is for me one of the most striking images in the book, a flurry of time displaced Déchronologues appear and then disappear through a tear in time, taking the Flying Dutchman with them.
We're told of this by Mendoza, who had been told to stay behind. Having met the Americanos during their short-lived alliance with the Spanish, it was decided he'd be best able to save the city if all else failed.
I won't say I'm not sad Villon died, because I am, but I was a fitting end and could have ended no other way. He tried so hard to convince everyone, even himself, that he wasn't a hero, but he was, in the end. And he was never going to let an injustice stand or let predetermination win out over free will.
(And now I shall go re-read the book in chronological order.)APPROPRIATE ICON IS APPROPRIATE.